Malaysia tried valiantly but still came up short when it mattered most. And the chance to make history evaporated when they could only hold Singapore to a 1-1 draw in the return leg of their Asian Zone World Cup second round qualifiers at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil yesterday.
Singapore, who won the first-leg tie 5-3 at the Jalan Bandar Stadium last Saturday, thus qualified for the third round on 6-4 aggregate.
It also dashed Malaysia’s hopes of progressing beyond the second round for the first time since they began competing in the qualifying rounds in 1974.
Malaysia needed to win last night’s clash by two clear goals and, for a while, there was a glimmer of hope when Safee Sali cracked in the first goal in the 58th minute.
But the 90,000-odd capacity crowd at the stadium was silenced when Shi Jiayi equalised in the 73rd minute.
To make matters worse, substitute striker Ahmad Fakri Saarani was sent off for a second bookable offence in stoppage time.
Special praise must also go to goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat for keeping Malaysia in the game with his remarkable saves.
Singapore, powered by their five naturalised players, were simply too strong for Malaysian coach Datuk K. Rajagopal’s young side, whose target is to qualify on merit for the 2015 Asian Cup.
Singapore were hardly threatened in the opening half and it was the home team who looked vulnerable at the back, with their sloppy defending.
It was left to Khairul to save Malaysia the blushes with three brilliant saves.
Malaysia failed to show any urgency and could barely muster a decent shot at goal, with Safee well contained by a steady Singapore defence led by Muhd Safuwan Baharudin and Shaiful Esah.
Safee’s partner-in-crime, Abdul Hadi Yahaya, was barely in the game.
The gaping hole left in the engine room due to Safiq Rahim’s absence through suspension and the 23rd-minute exit of centre-back Mohd Aidil Zafuan with an ankle injury added to Malaysia’s woes.
Singapore began strongly, coming close twice through flankers Qiu Li and Jiayi. The duo were simply irresistable, easily breaching the Malaysian defence in the 10th and 15th minutes but both times found Khairul unbeatable with point-blank attempts.
Khairul then had to dive full length to stop Shaiful Esah’s free kick from sneaking in at the top corner in the 40th minute.
Singapore looked more composed with their neat passing game while Malaysia only threatened in patches and were no threat to the Lions’ goalkeeper Mohd Izwan Mahbud.
Referee Takayama Hiroyoshi of Japan stopped play at the half-hour mark when Singapore goalkeeper Mohd Izwan complained of a laser being beamed at his face. An announcement was made through the PA system that the game would be called off if the fans continued with such acts.
Malaysia began the second half in offensive mode and their persistence paid off when Safee found the net with a powerful shot from inside the box, beating the outstretched Mohd Izwan in the 58th minute.
The goal was orchestrated by the tireless Kunalan, who squeezed his little body between two Singapore defenders to put Safee through.
And the prolific striker’s crack at goal sent the 90,000 fans into a frenzy.
It was now 1-0 in Malaysia’s favour but Singapore were ahead 4-5 on aggregate.
Ahmad Fakri came on for the ineffective Abdul Hadi in the 65th minute but it did not matter when the Malaysian backline cracked in the 73rd minute as Jiayi sneaked past two defenders to beat Khairul from close range.
Even the staunchest Malaysian fan knew then that the road to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was all over.
Malaysia: Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, Mahalli Jasuli, Mohd Asraruddin Putra, Mohd Aidil Zafuan Abdul Razak (Mohd Muslim Ahmad), Mohd Fadhli Shas, Amar Rohidan, Ismail Faruqi (K. Gurusamy), S. Kunalan, Mohd Amirulhadi Zainal, Mohd Safee Sali, Abdul Hadi Yahaya (Ahmad Fakri Saarani).
Singapore: Mohd Izwan Mahbud, Daniel Bennett, Mohd Safuwan Baharudin, Shaiful Esah (Mohd Isa Abdul Halim), Harris Harun, Shi Jiayi, Qiu Li, Mustafic Fahrudin, Aleksander Duric, Shahril Ishak (Fazrul Nawaz), Juma’at Jantan.