KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 9 — Nippy winger Muhammad Safawi Rasid struck a brilliant hattrick to inspire Malaysia to a 4-0 hammering of Laos for their second straight win in Group B of the 2020 AFF Cup at the Bishan Stadium in Singapore today.

Harimau Malaya head coach Tan Cheng Hoe deserves credit as his bold move in revamping the midfield and attack resulted in a slicker, sharper and more effective performance from his men this time compared to their opening 3-1 win over Cambodia on Monday.

Cheng Hoe replaced Putera Nadher Amarhan Maderner, Muhammad Akhyar Abdul Rashid dan naturalised player Guilherme de Paula with Arif Aiman Mohd Hanapi, Muhammad Mukhairi Ajmal Mahadi and Belgian club KV Kortrijk striker Luqman Hakim Shamsudin.

Laos, who started the game by pounding the Malaysian goalmouth with three attempts in the first five minutes, were caught flatfooted when Malaysia launched a counterattack, with Muhammad Safawi cooly tapped in a pass from Arif Aiman in the seventh minute.

Three minutes later, Malaysia nearly doubled their lead but Muhammad Syafiq Ahmad’s header hit the post while the follow-up attempt by skipper Mohamad Aidil Zafuan Abd Radzak hit the bar.

It was then left to Safawi to make it 2-0 for Malaysia when his header, off a corner taken by Arif Aiman from the left, sailed past Laos goalkeeper Keo Oudone Sovannasangso in the 34th minute.

World number 154 Malaysia came back in the second half from and continued to bombard the V. Selvaraj-coached Laos defence.

First, experienced midfielder Baddrol Bakhtiar powerful long-range drive missed the target by inches in the 56th minute. Three minutes later, Safawi’s free-kick attempt was pushed out by Keo.

The Harimau Malaya then brought on striker Muhammad Shahrel Fikri Md Fauzi to replace Luqman and the substitute had two chances in two minutes to find the net.

But his 72nd-minute effort was saved by Keo while his 73rd-minute attempt hit the post.

The Harimau Malaya, however, did not have to wait long for the third goal as, off a quick counter attack, defender Shahrul Saad received a through pass from Baddrol to slot home in the 78th minute.

Two minutes later Safawi completed his hat-trick, and his fourth in this campaign, when he latched onto a through pass from substitute R. Kogileswaran before steering a grounder to the right side of the Laos goalmouth.

The win over the world number 185 Laos is just the tonic they need as they prepare to face defending champions Vietnam on Sunday.

Malaysia will then wrap up their group stage against Indonesia on December 19.

Only the top two teams from each group will advance to the semi-finals. 

Meanwhile, Indonesia started their AFF Cup campaign on the right footing by defeating Cambodia 4-2 in another Group B match at the same venue tonight.

Defender Rachmat Irianto emerged as the Indonesian hero by scoring two goals in the fourth and 33rd minutes while skipper Evan Dimas and winger Ramai Rumakiek also found the net in the 17th and 54th minutes respectively.

Cambodia gave a commendable performance with their fast-paced game to score through a header by defender Yue Safy in the 37th minute and key striker Prak Mony Udom in the 60th minute.

Malaysia now lead Group B with six points, followed by Indonesia who are ahead of Vietnam on goal difference although both teams have three points, while Cambodia and Laos are on fourth and fifth places respectively without any point. — Bernama