KUALA LUMPUR: Birthday boy Mohamad Faisal Abdul Halim saved the day for Malaysia with a fine opportunistic goal as they were made to toil for a 1-0 win over Thailand in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) semi-final, first-leg tie at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, here, tonight.

The Harimau Malaya stunned the more fancied War Elephants in the 11th minute when defender Sharul Nazeem Zulpakar sent a raking pass to overlapping left-back V. Ruventhiran to head into the path of nippy winger Mohamad Faisal, who turned 25 today, to slot the ball past the onrushing Thai goalkeeper, Kittipong Phoothawchuek.

Cue pandemonium as the stadium, with 62,989 spectators inside, erupted with joy!

The goal could very well prove crucial when Malaysia, the 2010 champions, head to Bangkok for the return leg at the Thammasat Stadium on Tuesday (Jan 10) in a bid to make the final against either Vietnam or Indonesia.

If there is one thing this first-leg tie showed everyone, it’s that Malaysia can expect a torrid time in Bangkok because they found themselves under the cosh for most of the game after taking the lead.

The match began with Thailand, who came into the game with an unbeaten record, dominating possession and nearly stunning Malaysia with a fourth-minute goal when Pansa Hemviboon’s free header sailed just wide.

However, it was Malaysia who drew first blood when Mohamad Faisal got to the ball first off a header by Ruventhiran in the 11th minute.

It was Mohamad Faisal’s fourth goal in the current campaign, thus putting him second on the goalscorers’ list behind prolific Thai ace Teerasil Dangda, who has five goals under his belt.

The opening goal, however, did nothing to dampen the Thai team, who are coached by Alexandre Polking, as they cooly controlled the game with their neat short passes and excellent off-the-ball running to keep Malaysian custodian Ahmad Syihan Hazmi Mohamed busy between the posts.

Malaysia, under the guidance of South Korean Kim Pan Gon, missed a gilt-edged chance to double their lead in the 28th minute when Quentin Cheng failed to capitalise on a through pass from Mohamad Faisal when he skied his shot from close range.

Malaysia then continued to live dangerously as the Thais launched a series of attacks, only to be denied either by their own profligacy, the stout defending of Harimau Malaysia players or just sheer luck.

The Thais even missed chances when it seemed easier to score and Malaysia can consider themselves lucky to troop off the field 1-0 up at the break.

Thailand, however, came back after the breather and continued to pile on the pressure on the Malaysian team, who found it difficult to get out of their own half most of the time.

And Thailand nearly found the equaliser just two minutes after the break when Teerasil’s header hit the post.

The home crowd was back on its feet in the 55th minute when Malaysia had the ball in the net a second time after Dominic Tan headed home a free kick by Lee Tuck but, unfortunately, referee Kim Dae Yong of South Korea ruled it out for an infringement.

The close call only spurred the Thais to redouble their efforts and Panya missed their best chance when his close-range attempt was snuffed out by Ahmad Syihan in the 63rd minute.

With almost 70 minutes played, both teams made a rash of substitutions to inject new life into their game, with Thailand continuing to pour forward and create numerous chances as they searched for the equaliser, which never came.

With the defeat, the National Stadium continues to be a jinx for Thailand as they have yet to win here.

The Raja Permaisuri Agong Tunku Hajah Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah graced the event at the stadium.

Also present were Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh, her deputy Adam Adli Abd Halim and Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin. - Bernama

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