Rampant Sabah march on in AFC Cup but Ong Kim Swee hopes ASEAN Zone is just the first step

Sabah booked their place in the knockout round of the 2023-24 AFC Cup in style on Thursday as they sealed top spot in Group H with a 4-1 rout of Hougang United. Asian Football Confederation

With the flair and ruthlessness that has embodied their late-season form, Sabah are through to the 2023-24 AFC Cup knockout round -- after a dominant 4-1 win over Hougang United on Thursday sealed top spot in Group H with a game to spare.

From the moment a well-worked out on the left forced opposition defender Naoki Kuriyama to stab the ball into his own goal, Sabah were always in control of proceedings -- even if what happened immediately after was a 30-minute halt to proceedings given inclement weather at Jalan Besar Stadium.

A debatable penalty that was calmly converted by Darren Lok saw the visitors double their lead just before halftime before a stunning volley by Ramon and another Hougang own-goal -- this time by Anders Aplin -- capped off a stirring win, although the hosts did manage a consolation through a Gabriel Quak effort in injury-time.

The convincing scoreline could have been even bigger were it not for some excellent saves by Cheetahs goalkeeper Zainol Gulam, while the woodwork also bailed Hougang out on a couple of occasions.

A defeated Hougang coach Marko Krajlevic conceded that Sabah has just been the far better side and, based on their recent form, Thursday's scintillating display certainly would not have been unexpected.

Since a 5-1 loss in the Malaysia Super League to champions Johor Darul Ta'zim, the Rhinos have now won eight of their past 12 games -- losing just twice -- and have racked up a staggering 19 goals in their past four outings alone.

Yet, now they are through to the ASEAN Zone semifinals, Sabah coach Ong Kim Swee is hoping his players will not be merely satisfied by that.

"Our first target was to qualify for the next stage and now we are in the zonal semifinals," he told ESPN.

"It's a good achievement but we shouldn't look at it as the end of our tournament, because we want to go further."

Despite an impressive all-round performance against Hougang, Sabah actually did have their fair share of trials and tribulations -- with the break in play right after their opener preventing them from gaining immediate momentum, while they then struggled to cope with the waterlogged pitch initially after play resumed.

"Immediately after we scored, we had to head back in to the dressing room - when the game eventually continued, we needed to make a little bit of adjustment," admitted Ong.

"After getting used to the situation, the boys understood what they needed to do.

"When we can't move the ball as freely as we want to and play our usual short passing, sometimes we need to adapt and play longer balls."

Ultimately having gotten the job done, Sabah can now completely focus on the final two league games of the season without having to be overly concerned about their last AFC Cup group-stage tie against PSM Makassar, which is sandwiched in between domestic games against Perak and Kedah Darul Aman.

Thereafter, they will enjoy a brief break but will have to return to training soon enough with the ASEAN Zone semis set for February, even though the next MSL campaign only kicks off in April.

Yet, with Sabah in a rich vein of form, could there even be a sense of regret that their 2023 campaign is winding to a close?

With a wry grin, Sabah midfielder Stuart Wilkin, who was named man of the match on Thursday, agreed: "Yeah I guess you could say that.

"The boys have really come together this last part of the season. We know it's going to be a final push towards the end.

"I think we've built up some confidence with recent wins so we're definitely looking forward to how we finish up these last three games of the season."