Malaysia 'fit and will battle hard' at AFC U23 - striker N. Thanabalan

After an amazing 2017 in which he rose to fame with his Southeast (SEA) Games exploits, forward N. Thanabalan is yearning for more of the same as Malaysia embark on their 2018 AFC Under-23 Championship campaign in China this week.

The Malaysians, coached by Ong Kim Swee, are in a tough Group C, along with Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in their tournament debut.

Thanabalan, whose last game came for third-tier Felcra FC in the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) League In October, acknowledged the magnitude of their task on hand to make the last eight of the 16-team competition.

"We're facing many strong teams, and it's not so easy to fight with them," the 22-year-old told ESPN FC. "If we're fit and battle hard, maybe we can win, but still it's going to be very hard. For myself, I've been working really hard to get back to full fitness.

Thanabalan, or Thana, unexpectedly wrote himself into local sporting folklore by scoring four goals at last August's SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, including a late winner against Indonesia in the semifinals, before losing 1-0 to Thailand in the final after a goalkeeping error.

The story of him becoming the sole breadwinner of his family after his father Nadarajah was paralysed from chest down following a road accident in 2013 has warmed the hearts of many Malaysians.

"It's amazing that what happened at the SEA Games and I never expected this," he reflected."I thought I performed so well because of the home support and the crowds. That drove me on as I've never played in front of crowds like [80,000 fans at Shah Alam] in the FAM League.

"Also, there were many others watching on TV supporting us and wanting us to win, so we tried to play for them and our families. We all tried our best, but just could not beat Thailand in the final.

Thanabalan is definitely not resting on his laurels as he looks forward to a good year with club and country.

The 22-year-old returned to newly promoted Malaysia Super League (MSL) side Negeri Sembilan after his loan spell at Felcra and is hopeful of earning his first senior call up under new national boss Tan Cheng Hoe.

"I'm still contracted to Negeri and it will be exciting for me to play in the MSL, although it will be difficult because it's a big jump from playing in the third division," he said.

"If I get a good offer, I will go. But I'm happy to play for Negeri and I need to fight for my place in the team.

"As for the national team, I'm not ready and I still need to improve as I'm still only 22. Previously I wasn't called up for the Under-19s due to my size.

"So I definitely want to improve my physical strength and my technique to become a better player."

Malaysia will face Iraq in their U23 opener in Changshu on Wednesday before matches against Jordan and Saudi Arabia.