Two masterstroke substitutions from coach Ong Kim Swee inspired Malaysia to a crucial 2-1 win over Singapore in the Southeast (SEA) Asian Games on Wednesday, prevailing through goals from Muhammad Nor Azam Azih and N. Thanabalan.
Victory at Shah Alam Stadium puts the hosts in prime position to make the last four from Group A, while Singapore face an uphill battle after two consecutive defeats.
Ong made a host of changes for this much-anticipated fixture, introducing six new faces to the starting 11. They included Johor Darul Ta'zim goalkeeper Haziq Nadzli, Kedah's Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik and Penang hard man Syamer Kutty Abba.
Richard Tardy, meanwhile, stuck with Ikhsan Fandi to lead the firing line. His brother Irfan Fandi marshalled the Singapore defence, which conceded twice against Myanmar in the opening defeat on Monday.
The hosts took the game to their visitors. Safawi, who grabbed the opening goal in Monday's 2-1 win against Brunei, saw his drive comfortably saved by Muhammad Zhafran in the Singapore goal in the eighth minute.
Selangor winger Syahmi Safari was next to have a crack, with an improvised overhead kick as Malaysia tried to convert their possession into an early lead.
Despite seeing more of the ball, Ong's men were struggling to make inroads past the young Lions, who were comfortable shielding their guard in numbers.
Tardy's men did not see much of Haziq's goal for much of the first half. But when they had a sniff of goal, they turned it into a lead in the 37th minute.
Muhammad Amiruldin stunned the Shah Alam crowed with a sumptuous curling strike that flew in off Haziq's post. The midfielder took full advantage of Syamer's giveaway in the centre of the park.
Malaysia's response was Safawi's free kick, which thumped against the crossbar in first half injury time.
Ong swiftly made two changes at half-time, introducing N. Thanabalan and Muhammad Nor Azam Azih, as Malaysia came out in search of the equaliser.
There was more urgency in their play, with the hosts utilising both flanks, with relentless crosses into the Singapore penalty box.
Their persistence paid off midway through the first half. The Shah Alam crowd were on their feet to celebrate the leveler from Nor Azam.
The Pahang midfielder gave Muhammad Zharfan no chance with a low strike into the bottom corner after collecting a pass from Safawi on the left.
In the 74th minute, the decibles went up a notch as the Malaysians surged to a 2-1 lead, thanks to their other substitute Thanabalan.
The Felcra FC forward, who had looked lively since coming on, was quickest to react to a loose ball in the danger zone to smash home past Muhammad Zhafran after Matthew Davies's cross had caused mayhem.
In the other Group A game on Wednesday, Myanmar stayed top of the table after a 3-1 win against Laos.
Despite taking a first-half lead through Aung Thu, Myanmar were frustrated by the Laotians, and had to rely on two goals in added time to secure the three points.
Malaysia: Haziq Nadzli (GK), Matthew Davies, Adib Zainuddin (C), Safawi Rasid (Akhyar Rashid 87'), Syahmi Safari (N. Thanabalan 45'), Amirul Hisyam Awang Kechik (Muhamad Nor Azam Azih 45'), Adam Nor Azlin, S. Kumaahran, Ariff Farhan,Syamer Kutty Abba, Irfan Zakaria
Singapore: Muhammad Zhafran Rohaizad (GK), Syahrul Sazali, Muhammad Amirul Adli Suhaimi Mohamad Taufik Suparno 82'), Ikhsan Fandi, Muhammad Hami Syahin, Irfan Fandi (C), Muhammad Amiruldin Muhammad Nodin (Adam Swandi 67'), Muhamad Rusyaidi Salime, Muhammad Muhelmy Suhaimi, Lee Sin Qin Illyas, Muhammad Muhaimin Suhaimi