MALAYSIA - Singapore and Thailand will be fielding weakened Under-23 sides at the Merdeka Tournament and Malaysia's coach Ong Kim Swee believes the two countries lack respect for the event.
Ong, who will lead Harimau Muda out against V Sundramoorthy's Young Lions in the opening match on Saturday in Kuantan, told The New Paper on Wednesday: "The Merdeka Cup is a prestigious tournament with a long and illustrious history since it was first held in 1957.
"Maybe with the South-east Asia (SEA) Games coming, they don't want to show their true strength, but I think it is not right to bring a weak team as they will not be respecting the tournament."
Malaysia will be fielding their strongest Under-23 squad to Kuantan for the quadrangular, which runs from Saturday to Sept 14. Ong was given the mandate to pick the best young players in the country, including from K Rajagobal's senior side.
He has called up exciting talents like ATM FA right back K Reuben, PKNS FC playmaker Nazmi Faiz and the in-form Negeri Sembilan striker S Sivanesan.
Likewise, South-east Asia (SEA) Games hosts Myanmar have also registered a strong side, featuring national team centre back Zaw Min Tun, livewire midfielder Kyi Lin and highly-rated striker Soe Kyaw Kyaw.
However, six Singapore Under-23 starters, including the spine of Izwan Mahbud, Safuwan Baharudin, Hariss Harun and Shahfiq Ghani, will miss Saturday's opening match.
For Thailand, 16 out of their 20-man squad hail from Nara United, a third-tier club that play in the Thai Division 2 Southern Region League.
Ong hopes that the quality of the competition will live up to its illustrious past when teams from South Korea, Europe and even South America participated.
"They should still be formidable teams, and we don't want to take any teams lightly," he added.
"We have been away for 4½ months in Europe, we know the Malaysian public is looking forward to see how we play, and the first game against Singapore will always be a highlight.
"We will try to beat Singapore and then win this tournament, but the priority is the SEA Games, so we will use the Merdeka Tournament to identify areas to improve and which players to take to Myanmar."
The SEA Games will be held in Naypyidaw, Myanmar, from Dec 11 to 22, with the Under-23 football competition scheduled to kick off earlier.
Malaysia's side are the two-time defending champions. Along with the hosts, the Thais are rated as contenders this year.
Singapore, who have never won the football gold at the SEA Games, are also expected to challenge for the top prize, after the LionsXII, packed with players from the Under-23s, stormed to the Malaysian Super League (MSL) title this year.
Since March, Harimau Muda have spent almost five months in Europe, taking on teams from Slovakia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Norway. They returned with a mediocre record of three wins and four draws from 17 games.
The experience gained will hold them in good stead, although Ong claimed Singapore Under-23 have had better preparation with the LionsXII's exploits in the MSL.
"It was a good trip for us, and we had very good matches against teams who play a much higher standard of football," he said.
"But we have had these 10 players (from Malaysian state teams) join us since Sunday.
I think Singapore are better prepared because their players are together either in the LionsXII or Courts Young Lions."
However, this past week's training session at Jalan Besar painted a different picture for Sundram's team, who have had to work with just 15 players due to the players in the national squad and others who have been unable to join up due to National Service commitments.
Said Sundram: "We will miss the six against Malaysia, but it also gives us the chance to expose other players. "Harimau Muda have played together last year in the S-League and then this year in Europe without much disruption.
"They are also the defending SEA Games champions, I think they will do well, but we will give them a good run for their money.
"The results are not as important as the performance because it's all about peaking in December for the SEA Games. But the boys have got to show their desire to make it to the SEA Games squad."
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