Malaysia, the 2009 and 2011 SEA Games football champions, are staring at an early exit in the current competition after losing 0-1 to Thailand in a Group B fixture yesterday.
In front of a 1,500-strong crowd at Bishan Stadium, the Young Tigers desperately needed a win after their 5-1 capitulation to Vietnam on Tuesday but fell to an 81st-minute piledriver from Thailand captain Sarach Yooyen.
While defending champions Thailand are all but assured of qualification with a maximum of nine points from three games, Malaysia are now left with the uphill task of having to win their remaining two matches by large margins and hope that results elsewhere go their way to stand a chance of qualifying for the semi-finals.
Malaysia coach Ong Kim Swee lamented: "The difference is that we missed and they scored. Also, Thailand had the advantage of one day's rest over us in preparation for today's match."
While Malaysia are left to ponder a series of missed chances, Thai head coach Choketawee Promrut was satisfied with his side's victory, saying: "The victory is very important, we need the three points."
The hard-earned three points prime Thailand for a blockbuster clash against Vietnam next Wednesday to decide the winner of Group B.
Free-scoring Vietnam had matched Thailand with nine points from three games after a scrappy 1-0 win over Laos in yesterday's other match.
Substitute Nguyen Thanh Hien's strike from range settled the game and put the Vietnamese on top of the standings on goal difference.
Thailand's match winner Sarach described his goal as "fantastic" and added: "My goal helped to take the pressure off my team, Malaysia had been defending well before that."
The 23-year-old also sent out a statement of intent to the rest of the competition, saying: "We don't fear playing any team in the semi-finals, we are the champions and the ones to beat."
LOW JAY SEN