Ali Mabkhout hits double as UAE beat Nepal and start World Cup campaign with routine win

Paulo Bento's side ease to 4-0 victory at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai

Powered by automated translation

If this was still a way short of “Bento Ball”, and understandably so, then it wasn’t the worst of starts, either, for the UAE's newest manager.

Paulo Bento had already seemingly settled in all right to his latest surroundings, with three wins from three friendlies since his July appointment. Coming against Costa Rica, Kuwait and Lebanon, they hinted that the Portuguese had found his feet rather swiftly, and under the tutelage of yet another manager, the squad theirs.

So the UAE went into Thursday’s first step on what they hope will represent the Road to World Cup 2026 in confident mood. It helped, of course, that Nepal were the willing opponents at Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Granted, the modest footballing nation have only one fewer appearance at an actual global finals than the UAE. That ratio, though, sits at 0:1.

While the UAE are chasing once more to emerge from the shadow of their starry old 1990 predecessors, Nepal reside currently as the second-lowest ranked country in this second round of qualification. At 173rd in the official world standings, they languish more than 100 spots below the UAE.

And, predictably, it told. The hosts were 1-0 up within 10 minutes, even if in truth they struggled to really find their rhythm. Ali Saleh exchanged a short corner with Abdullah Ramadan, whipped a delicious cross to the back post, and the unmarked Khalifa Al Hammadi thumped home a header from close range. Yet the UAE’s inability to connect all the dots kind of continued until just about the half-hour.

Watching on from the edge of his technical area, Bento stood for the most part with hands in pockets, only occasionally letting his frustration show. When he did disappear from view and returned to his seat in the dugout, the camera caught the former Portugal and South Korea manager airing more than a few grievances with his assistant. By half-time, though, Bento was presumably much more content. Primarily, because the UAE had clicked finally into gear.

Ali Mabkhout, of course, was the one to double the hosts’ advantage, casually converting a 36th-minute penalty after Ramadan had been hacked to the turf by Nepal defender Amrit Shrestha. Already by some stretch the UAE’s all-time leading scorer, Mabkhout extended his record haul to 82.

Eight minutes later, he had No 83. Saleh’s deep corner was headed back into the fray by debutant right-back Zayed Sultan, the ball flicked on by Al Hammadi, and Mabkhout lobbed a header over Kiran Chemjong in the Nepal goal.

If that felt too much for the visitors, their fate was practically sealed in the next minute. Sent racing down the left, Ramadan fired a low cross across the Nepal six-yard box, Mabkhout feinted beautifully to let the ball roll by, and Fabio De Lima placed into the empty net.

At 4-0, the question was merely how many the UAE would press for after the interval. They do have a tricky test away to Bahrain on Tuesday.

With the opening Group H result secure, the second half was pockmarked by a raft of substitutions. Bento had the luxury; his side had granted him that.

That said, Caio Canedo went close on three occasions. Mabkhout had a shot blocked before he was withdrawn. De Lima, meanwhile, floated a chip wide and not long after his night was run.

To Nepal’s credit, however, they almost grabbed back a goal. It would have been the best of the encounter, too, if it hadn’t been for Khalid Essa’s excellent save from Manish Dangi’s rasping half volley.

The UAE were made to make do with four, and the three points to begin the path to the next World Cup as they wished.

For sure, tougher challenges will lie ahead. But, through his first competitive match as manager in relatively routine fashion, at least the Bento Era was officially up and running.

Updated: November 16, 2023, 6:05 PM