Paulo Bento proud of UAE's winning start to World Cup qualifying but warns of Bahrain test

National team opened the second round with 4-0 victory against Nepal

Ali Mabkhout of the UAE scores a penalty during the 2026 World Cup qualifying match between the UAE and Nepal. Al Maktoum Stadium, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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UAE manager Paulo Bento praised his players’ attitude as they began 2026 World Cup qualification with a win, but then reminded Bahrain will provide an altogether different test next week.

The national team kicked off the second round of qualifiers on Thursday night with a straightforward 4-0 victory against the low-ranked Nepal in Dubai.

Record goalscorer Ali Mabkhout struck twice at Al Maktoum Stadium, in between goals from defender Khalifa Al Hammadi and forward Fabio De Lima. All four came in the first half.

The win sees the UAE top Group H, with Bahrain second having defeated Yemen 2-0 in Saudi Arabia.

Bento, appointed in July as successor to Rodolfo Arruabarrena, said afterwards that he was content with his side’s endeavour on the night - a result that marked a winning start to his competitive tenure.

“We made a reasonable game,” the former Portugal and South Korea manager said. “In the first half we were very effective in the opportunities we had. We scored through the set-pieces [twice] as well. In the second half, maybe we had some chances to score, and we were not so effective.

“But in the end, I think that is a fair victory. It was important to start well, for sure.”

The UAE, aiming to seal what would represent only a second appearance at a World Cup in the country’s history, now travel to Bahrain to conclude the qualifying double-header. They take on their Gulf rivals in Riffa on Tuesday.

“We are happy with the attitude in general, and with the result,” Bento said. “And, of course, we know we must improve in the next game because we know for sure it will be a different game than this.”

Should the UAE have any joy in Bahrain, they will likely need to lean once more on Mabkhout. The Al Jazira striker, captain on Thursday, took his already unprecedented tally for the national team to 83 goals.

“He’s a player that all the fans know as well - his characteristics, his features," Bento said. "He is a player that has technical quality, who knows what he needs to do, especially in the offensive process.”

However, Bento added: “And he needs also to also adapt himself in certain things that we request as a technical staff, especially in the defensive way. He is trying to do that. He is improving in that moment of the game.

“He can, for sure, be an important player for us, but just as the other ones, sometimes he’s going to start in the starting XI, [while] sometimes other players are going to make that job.

“Because we are going to request other aspects. Not all the games are demanding the same. We have other players who can play as a striker with different characteristics.

“So it depends a little bit of the strategy we have for each game. And our concept is the forward, or the striker, is not just good and important for us because he scores one or two goals.

“In the same way it’s important that the defenders have a good participation in the offensive process, it’s also that the strikers, wingers, have a good participation in the defensive line.

“These kinds of connections, this kind of work, is what make the team better. And this is what we’re going to be looking for.”

Updated: November 17, 2023, 6:00 PM