Kuala Lumpur – Teerasil Dangda headed home 11 minutes from time as Thailand battled from a goal down to hold defending champions Malaysia to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their AFF Suzuki Cup semi-final on Sunday.
Forced to play as a lone striker in the absence of the injured Safee Sali, Norshahrul Idlan Talaha broke the deadlock early in the second half at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium when he headed home Mahalli Jasuli’s fine cross from the right.
But Teerasil responded for the visitors when he turned in a cross by Piyaphon Buntao to level things up ahead of the second leg at Bangkok’s Supachalasai Stadium on Thursday.
Thailand coach Winfried Schafer was sent to the stands by the referee late in the match after he became embroiled in a disagreement with the officials but he was pleased with the result as his side hung on despite late chances for substitute Safee and Norshahrul.
“The 1-1 draw is a good result for us as we still have the second leg to come, hopefully in front of a big crowd like this, in Bangkok,” said Schafer, who will have to watch the second leg from the stands.
“But we played well and we had enough chances to change the match even after we fell behind 1-0.”
However, Malaysia coach K.Rajagobal felt that his side were denied a victory that their performance deserved.
“I think tonight was one of the best matches that we have played and if you look at the game overall, I think that we deserved to win.
“We started out without some of our core players and I had to come up with a game plan but the boys did well tonight and I felt that we had more chances and created greater penetration.
“I could not ask more of the players and I have to be optimistic that we can get a result in the return game in Thailand. It can still go either way.”
Injuries forced Rajagobal to make four changes to his starting line-up from their 2-0 win over Indonesia last Saturday with Bunyamin Umar, Amar Rohidan, Gary Steven Robbat and Baddrol Bakhtiar drafted in to replace Zubir Azmi, Shakir Shaari, Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor and Safee.
Having made a number of changes to his starting line-up for Thailand’s final group match against Vietnam in order to avoid injuries or suspensions, Schafer reverted to his first choice line-up with playmaker Datsakorn Thonglao returning from injury to replace Sumanya Purisay.
The pitch had been saturated by heavy rain before the game and both teams struggled to maintain possession in the heavy conditions during the first half.
Malaysia exerted much of the early pressure but it was the Thais who had the first real opportunity in the 11th minute when Adul Lahsoh curled in a shot from 25 metres that Malaysia goalkeeper Farizal Marlias had to palm away for a corner.
The home side should have broken the deadlock in the 20th minute when a deep cross from the left picked out Azamuddin Akil, who had ghosted into the six-yard box unnoticed. But the winger misjudged the bounce of the ball off the heavy turf and was unable to make the crucial contact.
Phichitpoing Choeichiu lined up a shot from distance in the 27th minute that sailed narrowly wide and shortly afterwards, Teerasil’s cutback from the left for Jakkapan Pornsai was just too close to the outstretched arms of Farizal, who safely gathered the ball.
Malaysia skipper Safiq Rahim then tested Kawin Thammasatchanan with a swerving free-kick from the left flank that the Thai goalkeeper alertly stopped at his near post.
The second half began in explosive fashion as Mahalli burst down the right flank and sent in an excellent cross that Norshahrul met at the near post with a glancing header that flew across the diving Kawin into the far corner of the net.
It was the first time that the Thais had fallen behind in the tournament and they struggled to find an immediate response as the Malaysians fiercely contested every ball to the rapturous approval of the home fans.
But the visitors gradually began to exert themselves with skipper Panupong Wongsa heading over from a Datsakorn corner in the 63rd minute and Apipoo Suntornpanavej testing Farizal with a fierce drive from 25 metres four minutes later.
Safee and K.Gunanlan came on for Malaysia with 15 minutes left to replace Baddrol and Robbat but the Thais kept up the pressure and levelled the score with 11 minutes left.
The ball came to Piyaphon on the right flank and the full-back sent in a measured cross that was met by Teerasil whose header flew past Farizal into the top right corner of the net.
The Thais appeared content in the closing minutes to hold on for the draw but they were nearly caught out two minutes from time when they failed to deal with Safiq’s free-kick from the left. Safee ghosted in at the far post to meet the ball with a firm header that Kawin did well to tip over his crossbar for a corner.
Deep into stoppage time, Norshahrul broke clear on goal but Kawin did well to deny the striker a second goal which kept all things square for the second leg in Bangkok.