CHANGSHU — Ong Kim Swee believes his Malaysia team can spring a surprise during the country’s debut appearance at the AFC U23 Championship as they prepare to play former champions Iraq in China on Wednesday.
Malaysia face a potentially daunting task having been drawn to take on Saudi Arabia and Jordan as well as the Iraqis, and the step up in class is not lost on coach Ong as he readies his team to face the 2013 winners.
“We can’t deny that Iraq is a very good team, based on their record in youth and at senior levels,” he said.
“For us they’re a team we have looked at and the players are aware how good Iraq are. But, at the same time, we are going to play as we normally play and our players will give whatever they can to compete with Iraq.
“With the right tactical approach and with discipline we might get a good result.”
Ong’s men will meet an Iraqi side missing one of their most influential players. Striker Aymen Hussain is suspended for the meeting with Malaysia as he serves a two-game ban after receiving a direct red card in the final round of qualifying last year.
Hussain’s absence is significant, with the Al Shorta striker rated highly in Iraq after he finished the qualifying phase of the competition as the leading scorer across all 10 preliminary groups with six goals in just three games.
And while Malaysia’s record at U23 level in regional competitions is traditionally strong, Ong stressed there is a significant step up in class from Southeast Asian to continental level.
“The Southeast Asian Games definitely is at a different kind of level, compared with AFC tournaments and this is a bigger challenge for the boys,” he said.
“Of course, we have done well in the qualifiers and in age group tournaments in our region, but to be here to play against Jordan, Iraq and Saudi will give us a lot of experience.
“First of all we need to know that we have worked very hard and I believe the boys are ready and we will learn a lot of things and probably come out with a surprise result.
“The preparation has been good for us. For Malaysia, it’s our first time in the U23s and I believe this will be a good start for Malaysian football.
“We’re looking forward to this. It’s not an easy tournament and I believe it’s going to give us some very good experience. We hope that right through all of the matches that the players will show good character.”
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch