Safee: Singapore are soft
Tomorrow night's Causeway Derby just got a little spicier.
As if the stakes weren't high enough ahead of Singapore's AFF Suzuki Cup Group B match against bitter rivals Malaysia, Tigers striker Safee Sali yesterday claimed the current Lions squad are "not as tough" as previous sides.
Nothing less than a win will do for Malaysia if they want to make the Suzuki Cup semi-finals, and after the Tigers' training session at Bishan Stadium yesterday evening, Safee told The New Paper: "I'm confident of our team's chances against Singapore.
"We played a good match against Thailand, and even though we lost 3-2, we gave them problems.
"The performance gives us belief we can get the result we need against Singapore.
"Plus, the way I see it, Singapore are not as tough as before, because they do not have their foreign-born players."
Players like Serbia-born Mustafic Fahrudin, Bosnia-born Aleksandar Duric and China duo Shi Jiayi and Qiu Li all played important roles for former Lions coach Raddy Avramovic as he led Singapore to Asean titles in 2004, 2007 and 2012.
Singapore coach Bernd Stange, who took over in May last year, opted not to select any of them for this edition of the tournament.
When The New Paper later asked Safee to expand on his comments, the Johor Darul Ta'zim hitman said: "I'm not saying Singapore are weak.
"But the foreign-born players gave them an edge over other teams in the region, especially in terms of physique.
"Without them in the team, there is a big difference."
Perhaps Malaysia's 5-3 defeat by their rivals in a World Cup second-round qualifier in 2011 still rankles the forward.
Then on a hot streak, Safee scored twice for his country but still ended up on the losing side at the Jalan Besar Stadium, with all five of Singapore's goals coming from their foreign-born contingent.
Fahrudin, Jiayi and Qiu Li all found the net, while Duric scored twice.
Safee also scored in the return leg at the Bukit Jalil Stadium in Kuala Lumpur five days later, but his effort was in vain as the game ended 1-1, and Singapore progressed to the next round on aggregate.
Since then, the stocky forward has struggled to rediscover the sparkling form that drew comparisons to the late Mokhtar Dahari, Malaysia's finest footballer.
Safee scored five goals to fire Malaysia to the 2010 Suzuki Cup title, and also bagged a brace against English giants Liverpool in a high-profile exhibition match six months later.
But his last goal for Malaysia came exactly two years ago, in a 4-1 win over minnows Laos at the 2012 Suzuki Cup.
Safee's teammates, however, are a bit more cautious of the Singapore challenge.
Said strike-partner Norshahrul Idlan Talaha: "Then and now, Singapore have always been known for their togetherness and work rate.
"This was the case even before they had foreign-born players.
"They are a strong team and have many experienced players. We just have to think positive and believe in ourselves."
Amri Yahyah, who scored against Thailand and also saw an audacious shot from inside his own half rock the crossbar, added: "We are not over-confident. We know we have to stick together and work as a team if we want to beat Singapore.
"This could be our last game at the Suzuki Cup, it's do or die. There's no looking back."
Singapore are not as tough as before, because they do not have their foreign-born players.
— Malaysia striker Safee Salee (vying for the ball with Thailand’s Tanaboon Kesarat
Dollah relishing in big crowd for S'pore showdown
Before the start of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Malaysia coach Dollah Salleh insisted that the prospect of playing in front of a full house at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium when the Tigers faced arch-rivals Singapore did not worry him.
Tomorrow, Malaysia will play in the stadium for the first time, and will walk out into a hothouse atmosphere with possibly more than 40,000 fans roaring on their opponents in their final Group B clash, but Dollah continued his theme yesterday when he told The New Paper it will hardly be a problem for his men.
After a training session at the Bishan Stadium yesterday, Dollah (above) threw down the gauntlet.
Said the 51-year-old: "It's a must-win match for us. With Thailand already through, a draw will do us no good. We need to go all out.
"I'm not afraid at all. Big crowds don't bother me. My players are used to big crowds in the Malaysian Super League, and in fact, I enjoy playing in front of a full stadium.
"You look up at the stands, and you see fans all around the stadium, and it makes you feel good. I know that my players can match the levels of enthusiasm showed by the fans."
Despite his side sitting second from bottom in Group B, and key midfielder S Kunanlan nursing a knock sustained during the Tigers' 3-2 loss to Thailand on Wednesday, Dollah has no plans to divert from his usual game plan - attack.
"Our plan is simple - attack and win. I said before the Thailand game that our strikers would come good, and then Amri Yahyah scored, so we need to keep attacking," he said.
"So that's what we need to do, to get goals. Some, like Kunanlan, are not fully fit, but whatever line-up we field, we'll be going for the win from the start."
Dollah did hint, though, that his men would keep a close eye on Shaiful Esah, the left back who he has identified as the Lions' dangerman due to his set-piece prowess.
Left-footed Shaiful scored twice and produced one assist off set-pieces against Myanmar on Wednesday.
For Dollah, fouls outside the penalty area are a definite no-no.
"We have to be careful. We have studied Singapore's game against Myanmar and I have to say that Shaiful poses the biggest threat to us.
"Singapore are set-piece specialists and they always score from such situations.
"But we are more than able to keep up because we have tall centre-backs like Afif Amiruddin (1.86m) and Fadhli Shas (1.80m)."
Even with Singapore star defender Baihakki Khaizan suspended, and midfielder Shahdan Sulaiman sidelined with a broken ankle, Dollah maintained no team held any sort of advantage.
"Singapore and Malaysia play each other year in, year out. We know each other's tactics, weaknesses and strengths," he said.
"I'm not saying it will be an easy game, because Singapore have home advantage.
"What matters is how the players play, because the key here is to simply outplay each other."