MALAYSIA - By the time they return home early next month, Malaysia's Under-23 side would have spent some five months in Europe.
They would have played at least 14 football friendly, in addition to representing the country at the World University Games, which was held in Kazan, Russia, from July 6 to 17.
Ong Kim Swee's young men are leaving no stone unturned preparing for December's South-east Asia (SEA) Games, and little wonder.
After emerging as champions in the last two editions of the SEA Games, holders Malaysia have targeted gold again this year in Myanmar.
To that end, even more matches are being lined up for Ong's team.
They will travel to Singapore for two friendly fixtures against S-League sides next month before playing in the Merdeka Tournament at home.
Held from Sept 5 to 14 in Kuantan, Pahang, both Jordan and Singapore have confirmed their participation in the Merdeka tournament, with Indonesia and Thailand also set to play.
Speaking to The New Paper on Tuesday from Slovakia, hours before his side faced local outfit FK Pohronie, Ong said: "After spending about five months in serious preparation, nothing less than gold will be good enough for Malaysia.
"The target is not just a spot in the final - it's gold. And I dare say that if I don't get the team into the semifinals, I will likely be sacked."
After months of centralised training, Ong is looking for competitive fixtures to blood his young Tigers.
- Key part -
"The Merdeka tournament is a key part of our preparations because it gives us the opportunity to play in a competitive setting," said the coach, who was in charge of the team when Malaysia defended their SEA games crown in 2011 in Indonesia.
Ong, who led the team in the Great Eastern-Yeo's S-League last year when they were known as Harimau Muda A, is looking to bring as many of his first-choice players together for the tournament.
This will include the likes of winger Wan Zack Haikal, who is playing with Japanese third-tier side FC Ryukyu, and Malaysian wonderkid Nazmi Faiz.
"It has been difficult to judge how much the boys have improved since we played in the S-League last year, because most of our games have been friendlies, where the intensity is different from a competitive match," said Ong.
His charges finished fourth out of 13 teams in the S-League last year.
So far, they have played 13 games in Europe this year, registering three wins, two draws and eight losses.
Among the results was a 7-1 thumping at the hands of Georgia's Under-21 team and a 1-1 draw with Slovakia's Under-19s.
"The boys understand what is expected of them on the field, but our problem is consistency. We are superb at times, and then get carried away and become very poor," said Ong, whose team also beat Italy 2-0 at the World University Games.
With a focused preparation programme in full swing, Ong's Malaysia will be primed to defend their SEA Games gold and make a hat-trick of wins in the competition.
This year's Games will be held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, from Dec 11 to 22, with the football competition set to start earlier.
As always, the men's football gold will be the most coveted medal of the Games, and Ong counts Thailand, hosts Myanmar and Singapore as threats.
"This will be a very difficult SEA Games for us. We are the two-time defending champions, every other team are preparing well, and they will want to beat us.
"Thailand have recently beaten China 5-1 in a friendly, and they haven't won anything regionally for a while, and because of that, they will take things seriously this time. Myanmar will do whatever it takes to win on home ground," said Ong.
"Even though (Singapore Under- 23 and LionsXII coach) V Sundramoorthy has not been able to get his full team together too often, most of the team played together in the Malaysian Super League.
"They have gained good experience there, and whenever they score a goal, they are very hard to break down.
"To be honest, I would rather avoid meeting Singapore at the SEA Games."
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