CHANGSHU -- Malaysia's hopes of making a positive start to the AFC U23 Championship in China suffered a serious blow in their opening game on Wednesday evening as Ong Kim Swee's side were on the wrong side of a 4-1 thrashing by a ruthless Iraq.
Safawi Rashid scored late in the game for the Southeast Asian side, but it was little more than a consolation.
Goals from Mohammed Jaffal, Amjed Attwan, Alaa Mwahi and Hussain Ali gave the nation from west Asia all three points in the Group C encounter.
With games against Jordan and Saudi Arabia to come, Malaysia face a huge task to haul themselves into contention for a place in the knockout phase in their debut appearance in the competition.
It was a pair of individual mistakes -- from goalkeeper Ifwat Akmal in the first half and midfielder Nor Azam late in the game -- that cost the Malaysians and left Ong scratching his head.
"We lost to a better team and you can see a lot of differences between the teams, especially in terms of individual quality," Ong said.
"Iraq has a very, very balanced side and we tried to give them a game. We tried to compete with them, but unfortunately we conceded two silly goals from our own mistakes.
"If you base it just on the result, it's not good to lose 4-1. We conceded on two individual mistakes, which we could have avoided. At this level, when you make a mistake like that you will be punished.
"But the boys believed in themselves. We conceded after just five minutes, but they started playing and they started to get organised and show we can compete. But we need to be more disciplined in our approach."
The Iraqis took the lead with barely five minutes on the clock when Jaffal headed home after Hamzah Adnan had outpaced the Malaysian defence to race to the bye-line and clip in a perfect cross.
By the 28th minute, Iraq had doubled their advantage after Attwan drove past a static Malaysian backline that had failed to adequately clear Jaffal's free kick into the centre. Ifwat should have done better with Attwan's low drive, the goalkeeper allowing the ball to squirm under his body and cross the line.
Despite the scoreline, Malaysia had not been outclassed in the first half. Safawi Rashid and Jafri Chew showed that Ong's team were capable of pulling themselves back into the game.
Those hopes were extinguished, however, 11 minutes into the second half when Mwahi added Iraq's third. Ifwat again beaten from a tight angle on the left as Abdulghani Shahad's side guaranteed themselves the three points.
Safawi put Malaysia on the board 11 minutes from time when he slid his low shot beyond Ahmed Basil in the Iraq goal after Akyar Rashid pushed the West Asian nation side's defence onto the back foot.
But a mistake in midfield just two minutes later by Nor Azam gifted possession to Ali and the winger used his pace to outstrip the Malaysian defence, round the goalkeeper and calmly slot the ball home to cap a convincing win.
Michael Church has written about Asian football for more than 20 years and mainly covers the Chinese game for ESPN FC. Twitter: @michaelrgchurch