Malaysia U22 head to Dubai Cup as part of SEA Games gold quest
The Malaysian national Under-22 team took off for the Dubai Cup on Friday with coach Frank Bernhardt banking on his 23-man squad to make an impression against their more illustrious counterparts ahead of the South East Asian Games (SEA Games) in August.
Malaysia are housed in Group B of the friendly tournament, and will open their campaign against China on March 20. After that, they go on to face Saudi Arabia (March 23) and Jordan (March 26).
The Dubai Cup represents one of final big tests the German handler faces before the biennial multi-sport Games.
Bernhardt has been given the task of winning Malaysia the football gold at the SEA Games on home soil in Kuala Lumpur.
"Even though my preparations have been derailed time and again, I am focused to put together the strongest squad for the upcoming SEA Games," Bernhardt told Berita Harian.
"I believe this is the strongest squad we have at the moment, and these players represent our best chance to win in August."
Bernhardt has had a tough time since taking over Malaysia's development squad in December 2015.
After being promised a full time squad to work with last year to prepare for the SEA Games, the Football Association of Malaysia changed their stance and as a result, the 47-year-old was reduced to mostly scouting duties and only got to assemble his call-ups days before a friendly match.
The sporadic periods Bernhardt has had to work with the team stood out like a sore thumb. Malaysia's last two matches ended in a drab goalless draw against Philippines in December, before they suffered a 3-0 humiliation to Vietnam in February.
Bernhardt has already indicated the men heading to Dubai will most likely form the core of the squad ahead of the SEA Games, and will need his players to justify his selection.
The former Azerbaijan handler will also be hoping some of his players can change their miserable club form to shine in national colours.
Leading the attack are Penang forwards Jafri Firdaus Chew and S. Kumaahran, who have yet to score in the Malaysia Super League for Penang.
But Bernhardt takes along some in-form players as well. Selangor midfielder Syahmi Safari has shown plenty of promise this season, while Safawi Rasid, Syafiq Ahmad and Ifwat Akmal are also brimming with confidence after good starts to 2017.
Malaysia squad to Dubai Cup: Haziq Nazli, Ahmad Syihan Hazmi, Ifwat Akmal, R. Dinesh, Syahmi Safari, Dominic Tan, Aqil Irfanuddin, Arif Fadzilah, Syazwan Andik, Adib Zainuddin, Fauzan Fauzi, Syazwan Zaipol, Danial Ashraf, Safawi Rasid, Ahmad Khairil Anuar, Irfan Zakaria, Nur Shamie Iszuan, Jafri Muhammad Firdaus Chew, Syamer Kutty Baba, S. Kumaahran, Adam Nor Azlin, N. Thanabalan, Syafiq Ahmad
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.