Yangon: When Myanmar suffered three straight opening losses in Asia's second qualifying round for the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™, few gave them any hopes of a comeback. Under newly returned German boss Antoine Hey, however, the Asian Lions have emerged a different team, registering a pair of victories to rekindle their hopes.
Indeed, it proved a disastrous start for Myanmar with defeats to Mongolia (1-0), Japan (2-0) and Kyrgyz Republic (7-0) putting them on the edge of early elimination. But, amazingly, the Southeast Asians overcame Tajikistan in a 4-3 goal-thriller before downing Mongolia 1-0 to move a point shy of second-placed Kyrgyz Republic.
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What has happened to the team as they have gone from whipping boys of Group F to dark horses? Myanmar captain Zaw Min Tun shed light on the driving force behind the team's progress as he spoke to FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview.
"I think it was the coach's strategy that worked," said the 27-year-old defender, who is plying his trade with Thai league side Sukhotha. "He employed the proper game plans which suited the team. He knows the players well, so he deployed them on the right positions.
"After losing the three opening games, every one of us wanted to prove ourselves. All these factors combined to see us improve our game. We worked hard to bounce back."
Having coached the team in 2018, Hey is no stranger to Myanmar football. His knowledge on the team looks to have helped him make an immediate impact since replacing Montenegrin Miodrag Radulovic last October.
"Coach Hey is familiar with us and knows how to manage the team," Zaw continued. "He is a very good person. He talks freely with players about what they need to improve. He has forged a good relationship with us, we trust each other and believe he can take us to another level."
A hopeful team
Aside from the coach's fine work, the young players have made fast progress, a fact which bolsters Zaw’s confidence. Particularly, he paid tribute to striker Suan Lam Mang (pictured below, centre) and midfielder Hlaing Bo Bo for their good showings in their latest victories – the former struck a brace against Tajikistan and the latter netted the only goal against Mongolia.
"These two players are young, fast and have good technique. They are talented and have a bright future. Besides, we have other young players who have improved game after game. With the youth talents complementing the old heads, our team are well good balanced," Zaw added.
Awaiting them when qualification returns are group front-runners Japan and Kyrgyz Republic. While a victory against the Japanese looks beyond their grasp, Zaw has set his sights on seeking revenge against the Central Asians, having lost heavily in the first-leg meeting.
"As everyone knows, Japan are of a different level. We will try our best, but it will be hard to get a good result. Kyrgyz Republic are also a strong team but we have hopes against them. We lost in the previous match because we played away. If we play on home soil and we work hard, our chances will be bigger."
With only four automatic berths for Qatar 2022 up for grab in Asia, Myanmar’s chances of sealing their first-ever World Cup qualification look small. But, with this campaign also serving as qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023, Zaw didn’t hide their ambitions of securing their return to the Continental Finals, having been absent since finishing as runners-up in 1968.
“World Cup qualifying is, of course, the most important competition on planet football. We are really proud of taking part in it. We definitely want to go to the World Cup but our realistic goals are to qualify for the next Asian Cup,” Zaw admitted. “We will get ourselves fully prepared against these strong opponents and do our utmost to achieve those aims.”
Sources: FIFA.com, AFC
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