Showdowns between old foes are set to mark Asia's second qualifying round for 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with 16 of the 30 participants having met previously in their bid for the global showpiece. Topping the re-match list, however, is Malaysia versus Singapore, whose two-legged match-up on 23 and 28 July represents their fourth qualifying meeting for the world extravaganza.
By any standards, the neighbouring derby between Malayan Tigers and the Lions is among the classic, with the two sides pitted against each other in no less than 57 international first-team matches. Despite the long-standing rivalries developed across over half a century, they are nearly even in head-to-head record, with the latter boasting a single additional win with 21 victories.
Drama, of course, has not been lacking during their encounters. Notably Malaysia pipped Singapore 3-1 in the final to win the 1989 SEA Games gold, although it was an own goal by Borhan Abu Samah that set the hosts on the road to victory. But the Lions well avenged that loss 18 years later, when they eliminated the Tigers in the 2007 AFF(ASEAN Football Federation) Championship semi-finals en route to their third regional title.
Radojko Avramovic's have also been unbeaten over the past seven years with five wins and two draws. However, it was coach Rajagobal Krishnasamy's outfits that outshone in last December's AFF Championship by claiming their maiden title, while Singapore even failed to progress beyond the group stage.
With such an epic history at stake, it is no doubt that mind games are set to come into play and become a telling factor in meeting number 58. Boosted by their recent performances, including an aggregate triumph over Chinese Taipei in the previous qualifying round, coach Krishnasamy believed his campaign-hardened side can upstage the neighbours with their first win since 2004.
"It will definitely be a close contest for both sides but I think our chances are greater," the 55-year-old former international striker told FIFA.com. "Our player's confidence is boosted by their recent good showings and I am feeling this bodes well not only for this squad but also the country on the whole."
Despite their regional success a young Malaysia squad, featuring nine U-23 players, were made to sweat against Chinese Taipei in what was expected to be an easy tie. After a hard-fought 2-1 home win, they lost the away game in the return 3-2 to level with the opponents 4-4 on aggregate, only to progress on the away goals. With critics pointing to their leaky defence, Krishnasamy stated they can come good when it matters.
"We faced similar storms when we lost the opener 5-1 to Indonesia in the last AFF Championship, but after that our defence was disciplined tactically. We are now a young team but these U-23 players will come up matured and strong in a few years," he continued.
Confident he may be, but his opposite number, coach Avramovic thinks that Malaysia could be the victim of their own success. "Who are the reigning ASEAN champions? I think the pressure is on them because they want to prove they are worthy of that title and that they didn't win it by chance," said the 61-year-old Serbian.
Singapore have been fairly inactive since their disappointing ASEAN Championship campaign eight months ago, with a 4-0 friendly win over Maldives – their only warm-up only ahead of FIFA World Cup qualification. Still Avramovic is confident that they can take heart from their history-making achievement when they progressed to the third qualifying stage for South Africa 2010 for the first time.
He said: "The game against Malaysia will have a good atmosphere and will bring back memories of competitions from before, but that time is past. This is a World Cup qualifier and we are looking to get into the third round again.”
His words, however, did little to daunt Krishnasamy. Level with Singapore with a 2-2 draw and a 1-0 win apiece from their three previous qualifying meetings, he is adamant his side can go one better this time around.
“Having played against Chinese Taipei we have the necessary mental approach against Singapore and, we are ready to handle the worst scenario,” he stated firmly.