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FOOTBALL: SIGH OF RELIEF FOR M’SIA, TRICKY PATH FOR THAIS

WHILE hosts Malaysia can heave a sigh of relief, highly rated Thailand face tricky path in its mission to defend its SEA Games football title after being handed a draw which pits them against five other teams including powerhouses Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines – currently South East Asia’s highest ranked team. Saturday’s SEA Games ​2017 football draw in Kuala Lumpur​ ​​ saw the Thais pitted in Group B, which also includes Cambodia and Timor Leste. Thailand, with Under-23 head coach Worrawut Srimaka at the helm, however, are still rated highly as hot favorites to retain the 2017 Games gold medal despite lying four rungs below (131) leader Philippines (126) in the FIFA ranking list. Malaysia, currently ranked 167th and with Under-22 head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee in charge, can breathe easily as they found themselves grouped with Myanmar, Singapore, Laos and Brunei, and with less matches to play. In the 2015 Singapore Games, Thailand, under the guidance of Choketawee Promrut, emerged champions after overcoming Myanmar 3-0 in the final match. When met after the draw, Dato' Ong regarded all participating teams as having equal chances of winning the gold medal. The football competition starts off early with preliminary rounds scheduled at the Shah Alam Stadium and Selayang Stadium from 14 August. The final match is scheduled at National Stadium in Bukit Jalil on 29 August. "We need to be at the top of our game if we were to get past the group stage. On paper, all fingers are pointing at Singapore and Myanmar as our toughest challengers but do not under estimate Laos and Brunei, they are well capable of creating upsets,” said Dato’ Ong. "With all teams currently preparing intensively for the Games, we can expect tough matches… let’s work hard to qualify for the semifinals first before setting our sights of the gold medal,” he added. The Malaysian national team last won the SEA Games gold medal in 2011 under Dato Ong’s guidance. Malaysia’s campaign in the 2013 Games in Myanmar were halted at the semifinals stage, and in the last Games in Singapore (2015) Malaysia failed miserably after failing to get past the group stage. Group A Malaysia Myanmar Singapore Laos Brunei Group B Thailand Vietnam Indonesia Cambodia Timor Leste Philippines