Malaysia wary of wounded Singapore
Harimau Muda coach Ong expects the Young Lions to be fired up for Causeway Derby
With home support behind them and, coming off a successful AFC Under-23 Championship qualification campaign last month, Malaysia are touted as favourites for tonight's SEA Games Causeway Derby.
But Harimau Muda coach Ong Kim Swee has warned his charges not to take Singapore lightly when the two sides clash in their Group A match at the Shah Alam Stadium.
Singapore kicked off their SEA Games campaign with a 2-0 defeat by Myanmar on Monday, and a second defeat tonight will seriously dampen their hopes of making the semi-finals for the Under-22 competition.
Malaysia also played their first match on Monday, posting a 2-1 victory over Brunei.
Ong told The New Paper: "We cannot underestimate any team, be it Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, or Singapore.
"From what I saw when Singapore played Myanmar, the team have made a lot of improvement since the AFC U-23 Championship qualifiers.
"The Singapore players also know it is 'do-or-die' for them tomorrow.
"Because of this, I believe they will approach the match aggressively, so we need to be very cautious."
Singapore and Malaysia met each other once this year - at the Dubai Cup in the United Arab Emirates in March - with the Malaysians emerging 3-1 victors.
But they were then handled by German coach Frank Bernhardt, with Ong taking the reins only when the team returned from the UAE, after Johor's Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim became Football Association of Malaysia president.
The appointment was a demotion, since Ong had been charge of Malaysia's senior national team since late 2015.
But the 46-year-old coach got his head down and immediately worked towards helping the Harimau Muda win their first SEA Games gold medal since 2011 - when he was also head coach.
Ong's appointment with the U-22s can already be regarded as a success.
Last month, Malaysia topped their AFC U-23 Championship qualifying group, which included regional kingpins Thailand - 15-time winners of the SEA Games gold - and Indonesia.
This meant they qualified for the tournament's Finals in China next January.
By contrast, Singapore failed to qualify after they finished third in their group after falling to Myanmar (2-0) and Australia (7-0). They beat Brunei 4-1 in a dead rubber final match.
Ong, however, refused to read too much into those results.
He said: "From what I have seen, Singapore have a few individuals who, even though they are young, have the right ability and attitude for the team.
"The left winger (Hanafi Akbar, 22) is one of them, and Fandi Ahmad's sons (defender Irfan, 20 and striker Ikhsan, 18) are also good players.
"Yes, some of them may be young but, when you play them in this kind of tournament, you are giving them exposure and they will want to prove they have something.
"Anyway, this is Singapore versus Malaysia, so it doesn't really matter who you field - the fight in everyone is the same."
Ong also brushed aside Singapore coach Richard Tardy's comments after the defeat by Myanmar on Monday night.
The Frenchman had suggested Malaysia would be the fresher of the two sides going into tonight's match, as they would have required less exertion to beat minnows Brunei, compared to Singapore's effort against 2015 SEA Games silver medallists Myanmar.
Ong said: "On paper, before the tournament, everybody thought we would beat Brunei easily and comfortably.
"But it was 1-1 at half-time and we scored our second goal only in the 60th minute... They gave us a run for our money.
"People can say it was an easy game but, in truth, we struggled and could not find our rhythm.
"I believe all the four teams that played their first game on Monday will feel the effects of fatigue if they play again (on Wednesday).
"It's just a matter of who you pick to play, and what you're going to do in terms of tactics."