Malaysia unable to avoid early AFC Asian Cup exit but restore pride in battling display

Despite producing a far-improved display from their opening 4-0 loss to Jordan, Malaysia would be eliminated from the 2023 AFC Asian Cup in heartbreaking fashion after conceding in the 95th minute to lose 1-0 to Bahrain on Saturday. KARIM JAAFAR/AFP via Getty Images

After a chastening 4-0 loss to Jordan as they made their return to the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since 2007, Malaysia were in desperate need of a response on Saturday.

Faced with another formidable test in the form of Bahrain, Harimau Malaya did just that.

Unfortunately, it just was not enough to keep them alive in the tournament.

In heartbreaking fashion, Malaysia had repelled everything their opponents threw at them and looked to have done enough to come away with a creditable point -- until the fifth minute of injury-time, when Ali Madan's 20-yard effort secured a 1-0 victory for Bahrain.

Moments later, when the final whistle blew, the disappointment in the Malaysia camp was clear for all to see - with some players hunched over and others simply collapsing onto the turf.

Yet, it may not have stemmed from the fact that their hopes of making it out the group stage were officially over.

In spite of the obvious positivity surrounding Malaysia's return to the biggest stage Asian football has to offer and the ever-optimistic expectations from their passionate fanbase, a spot in the knockout round always looked beyond them.

Especially when the luck of the draw had pitted them in Group E alongside Jordan, Bahrain and a certain South Korea.

While they were never going to throw in the towel before a ball had even been kicked, a realistic target would have been for them to produce three commendable displays against significantly stronger opposition.

And that is perhaps the explanation for the emotion display at the end of Saturday's contest, for Malaysia had indeed produced such a performance -- but would not have anything to show for their efforts.

Granted, Bahrain had been the better side throughout the contest as they dominated possession and created the better opportunities.

Despite the last-gasp nature of the victory, it would be impossible to argue they were not deserving winners.

Yet, it was not one-way traffic either.

Showing vast improvement from that opening loss to Jordan, Malaysia were better organised and offered far more spirit in the contest but also threatened with increased endeavour when going forward -- especially in transition.

As early as the 16th minute, a fast break initiated by Faisal Abdul Halim eventually saw the ball fall to Arif Aiman on the edge of the box -- only for his well-placed attempt to be smartly saved by Ibrahim Lutfalla.

Whenever they had the opportunity, Faisal and Arif -- with constant backing from La'Vere Corbin-Ong and Matthew Davies respectively -- both gave their opponents on either flank plenty to think about.

The three-man Malaysia defence looked much sturdier with Dion Cools in the centre, with the Buriram United man better equipped to read the play and sweep up any danger while flanked by Shahrul Saad and Dominic Tan -- as opposed to in the previous match when he was one of the wider centre-backs with Junior Eldstal in the middle.

But the one person who really stood out for Harimau Malaya was Stuart Wilkin, whose all-action display as a box-to-box midfielder was a real throwback to a bygone era.

From snapping into challenges to retaining possession in the middle of the park and then tidily distributing the ball to his teammates, Wilkin -- at the age of 25 -- showed he can, and should be, a mainstay in the Malaysia midfield for the next decade.

Wilkin could even have been more ably supported had he been stationed alongside Syamer Kutty Abba for more than just 45 minutes.

Syamer, introduced into the starting XI after sitting out the opener against Jordan, offered the Malaysians a real physical presence but an unnecessary yellow card after just 19 minutes meant -- especially in his role -- he always ran the risk of a second booking, prompting coach Kim Pan-Gon to replace him at the break.

The forced removal of Syamer handed even more initiative to Bahrain as they were able to exert more pressure on Malaysia than they did in the opening 45, even if it took until stoppage time to finally break through the resistance.

With a second defeat, there is no longer a chance that Malaysia can avoid a bottom-place finish in Group E -- even if they go on to stun South Korea in their final outing on Thursday.

They have however restored some pride.

A similar display against the South Koreans and they might just be satisfied with their exploits in their Asian Cup return, even if they will be going home early regardless.