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Safawi gets it spot-on to ignite Malaysia’s 2023 Asian Cup hopes

Kuala Lumpur – The Harimau Malaya are guaranteed a direct spot in the next round of the 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers after edging Thailand 1-0 in their final Group G second-round match of the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup qualifiers in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) early today.

Second-half substitute Muhammad Safawi Rasid was the hero when he scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot to help the Harimau Malaya record their second win over coach Akira Nishino’s Thailand in this campaign.

The win enabled Malaysia to finish third in the group and earn an automatic spot in the third round of the 2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers.

This is also national coach Tan Cheng Hoe’s second win over Thailand, extending his unbeaten run against the War Elephants to four matches since taking charge in December 2017.

In today’s do-or-die match, both teams were looking for their first win since the campaign resumed, with both sides making six changes to their starting line-ups in their quest for all three points.

The first 10 minutes of the match at the Al Maktoum Stadium saw both sides testing each other’s defence, with winger Muhammad Akhyar Abdul Rashid and Thai midfielder Thanawat Suengchitthawon having the best chances to open accounts.

The nippy Muhammad Akhyar managed to beat the offside trap and nearly put Malaysia ahead in the 18th minute but failed to find his scoring touch despite being one-on-one with the Thai goalkeeper.

Malaysian continued to threaten, with naturalised player Guilherme De Paula sending a header straight to Thai goalkeeper Chatchai Bootprom in the 22nd minute. Five minutes later Chatchai was equal to the task as he saved Malaysian skipper Mohamad Aidil Zafuan Abd Razak’s header.

However, world No 106 Thailand did not just sit back as they too took the game to the Malaysians, with Thanawat’s powerful drive in the 40th-minute sailing just high.

With the score 0-0, Cheng Hoe brought on Muhammad Safawi and Muhammad Syafiq Ahmad in the second half and it paid off when Muhammad Safawi was fouled in the box by Thai defender Ernesto Punya.

Muhammad Safawi picked himself up, placed the ball on the spot and struck a powerful grounder that just squeezed under the diving Chatchai’s body to put Malaysia 1-0 up in the 52nd minute.

That goal woke up the War Elephants and, just three minutes later, they very nearly equalised. However, skipper Thitiphan Puangjan’s powerful header could only rattle the crossbar.

Malaysia had a chance to double their lead in the 66th minute but De Paula blazed his shot. The Thais doubled their efforts but were let down by poor finishing.

Meanwhile, in another Group G match, the UAE ended Vietnam’s seven-match unbeaten run with a 3-2 win at the Zabeel Stadium.

Malaysia, thus, end their Group G qualifying campaign in third spot with 12 points, with the UAE on top with 18 points and Vietnam second on 17 points. Thailand ended up fourth with nine points while Indonesia remained rooted at the bottom with just one point. — Bernama

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