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With a second straight defeat — this time a 3-0 loss at the hands of Thailand — Malaysia‘s 2022 AFC U-23 Asian Cup campaign is over just three days after it began.
While they still have one more game to go against Vietnam on Wednesday, it is no longer possible for the Malaysians to qualify for the quarterfinals from Group C.
Lest this be immediately be deemed a failure, it is important to note that the luck of the draw was not exactly kind to Malaysia having pitted them against reigning champions South Korea — who they lost to 4-1 in their opener on Thursday — as well as regional rivals Thailand and Vietnam, who are both widely regarded as Southeast Asia’s leading duo over the past decade.
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Malaysia’s cause was also not helped by their recent exertions at the 31st Southeast Asian Games, where they had to play six games over 15 days which culminated in the disappointment of missing out on the bronze medal after losing to archenemies Indonesia on penalties.
Granted, losing by such a convincing margin to one of their neighbours is far more disconcerting than defeat to powerhouses South Korea, and there are certainly areas that Malaysia coach Brad Maloney will be looking to address.
Yet, it is also important to acknowledge that the Malaysians also had one eye on the future at this tournament, with 14 of their 23-man squad eligible for the next edition in two years.
So with Malaysia’s elimination, the hopes of Southeast Asia will now rest on the shoulders of the Thais and the Vietnamese, so who stands a better chance of making it out of the group stage? Or could both even make the quarterfinals?
The second scenario seems unlikely given the other contenders in Group C are the mighty South Korea, although they were far from at their best on Sunday as they were held to a 1-1 draw by Vietnam.
A conservative approach by the Vietnamese — a hallmark of their game plan since Park Hang-seo took charge of the national team in 2017 — worked to perfection as they frustrated and stifled their more-illustrious opponents, even though the U-23 reins have been handed over to his compatriot Gong Oh-kyun at this competition.
Having also drawn with Thailand in their opening tie, Vietnam are currently outside the top two in Group C — which are the qualifying berths for the quarters — but they do have the benefit of having completed their two tougher matches, with Malaysia now awaiting on Wednesday.
Instead, it is Thailand who are on course to advance at present, although they do have the daunting task of taking on the South Koreans in their final Group C tie.
It is however worth noting that Thais are far from pushovers at this level, having also reached the last eight in the previous edition, and do boast some standout talent headline by 19-year-old Suphanat Mueanta.
With three goals to his name already, the Buriram United starlet is currently the joint-top scorer at the competition despite being four years below the age category.
Already able to lay claim to being the youngest scorer in AFC Champions League history, Suphanat remarkably already featured for the War Elephants in the U-23 Asian Cup two years ago — when he was just 17.
With him leading the attack and ably supported by the likes of Ekanit Panya and Thanawat Suengchitthawon, while senior team standout Kritsada Kaman holds the fort in defence, it is not impossible that Thailand can spring an upset against South Korea.
There is a chance of a three-way tie on five points should Thailand and South Korea draw while Vietnam beat Malaysia, which will then see the teams ranked based on head-to-head points, goal difference and then goals scored.
The interesting scenario would be for Vietnam to win 3-0 and the other two contenders to play out a 1-1 draw.
It would leave the trio equal on head-to-head points and goal difference but with Thailand and Vietnam finishing above South Korea on goals scored, by virtue of the 2-2 draw they shared on the opening matchday.
So, in spite of Malaysia’s early exit, Southeast Asia is still guaranteed at least one representative in the last eight.
But two? And at the expense of the reigning champions? Now that would be something.
As Malaysia's AFC U-23 Asian Cup quest ends early, are Thailand or Vietnam better placed to reach knockout round? – ESPN India
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