Steady progress boosts Malayan Tigers
© AFP

Two quiet, inactive months have elapsed since Malaysia's spirited 2-1 home defeat of Yemen in a 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifier. The triumph, their first this year in all competitions, not only saw the Malayan Tigers' qualifying hopes rekindled, but also helped with steady progress in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. The south-east Asians climbed a single place to 163 in April's edition, before another two-place move was gained this month which maintains their edge above regional rivals Singapore and Indonesia.

The victory, indeed, silenced critics from both home and beyond after a series of disappointing losses in the build-up. In the wake of their failed campaign in last December's AFF Suzuki Cup, during which coach Rajagopal Krishnasamy's defending champions conceded their title to the Singaporeans, Malaysia began the new year miserably losing 3-0 in a friendly to Iraq. That was followed by a 2-0 defeat to Qatar in February's Asian Cup opener, a result which immediately left the Malaysian's campaign in jeopardy in a group also featuring Bahrain.

Then came the Yemen test. In a match neither side could slip up having both lost the opener, playmaker Azamuddin Akil struck on 27 minutes to cancel out Ayman Al Hagri's early opener for the visitors, before Mohamed Muhymeen scored the match-winner ten minutes from full time to send the 80,000-strong home crowd into raptures.

"It was such an encouraging performance by the players," Krishnasamy, who represented Malaysia as a midfielder from 1980-82, said recently speaking to FIFA.com. "After all, it was very important to get the three points. It was a big boost to the players' confidence, as well as a great achievement for us. It sent our group rivals a clear message that we are a team to be respected."

Continental ambitions
On the back of Malaysia's milestone success in the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup, during which he took his side to their maiden regional title in only his second year in charge, Krishnasamy has often stated his ultimate goal of qualifying for their fourth Asian Cup finals.

The announcement raised quite a few eyebrows, with the task considered by many to be a tough challenge for Malaysia, Asia's 31st ranked side. After all, they spent a lengthy 27 years in the wilderness after featuring in the Asian showpiece at Kuwait 1980. Although they earned their return to the continental extravaganza as co-hosts in 2007, they were condemned to an early exit with zero points.

And their efforts in qualifying for Qatar 2011 came to no avail, crashing out with the wooden spoon after finishing behind United Arab Emirates and Uzbekistan. Despite edging out Yemen in the ongoing campaign for Australia 2015, qualifying will be tough with only the top two finishers advancing to join the hosts, Japan, Korea Republic and 2012 AFC Challenge Cup champions Korea DPR at the 16-team tournament.

However, neither the past record, nor tough opposition leave the Malaysia coach in awe. "I still stick to my vision and goal," he said. "We need to be optimistic about our job and work harder. With proper preparation and our key players in good physical and mental state, we can complete our mission in the remaining matches."

Awaiting them is a crucial qualifier at home in October against Bahrain, who are topping the section with two opening victories against Qatar and Yemen. While the west Asians represent a side which Malaysia have never won against since 1980, Krishnasamy is all too aware they must overcome the strongly-favoured visitors if they are to keep their hopes alive.

As many as ten warm-up matches, including the eye-catching friendlies against Chelsea in July and Barcelona in August, have been arranged as Krishnasamy seeks to spring a major upset. He said: "We will focus on improving our finishing as we aim a good result against Bahrain. And our players should become more disciplined in adapting to our tactical approach."