The first major, some would say contentious, decision of the Paulo Bento era arrived in his second competitive match.
When team news emerged from Riffa on Tuesday evening, around an hour prior to the UAE’s 2026 World Cup qualifier with Bahrain, Ali Mabkhout was absent from the starting line-up. Fabio De Lima, too.
The duo, two of the top scorers in the history of the UAE top-flight, had contributed three of the national team’s goals in last Thursday's 4-0 victory against Nepal in the second-round opener in Dubai. With a double, Mabkhout took the bragging rights – no doubt amicable – on the night between teammates.
No one, though, can lay claim to the Al Jazira striker in the all-time stakes. With 83 international goals, Mabkhout sits way out as the UAE’s record goalscorer. On Thursday, in what marked Bento’s first official match in his new role, Mabkhout was chosen as captain.
Five days later, for most probably the UAE’s toughest Group H assignment, he wasn’t selected to start. Bento had hinted as much after the Nepal rout, when the former Portugal and South Korea manager reminded that the collective would always prevail over the individual; Mabkhout, he said, may find himself relegated to the bench if deemed necessary.
So, at the Bahrain National Stadium on Tuesday, Bento put his words into action. In Mabkhout’s place, he opted for Sultan Adil, the precocious Ittihad Kalba frontman who, at 19, was making his competitive full debut for his country.
To be fair, Adil has clearly impressed Bento already; last month, he netted the stoppage-time winner in a friendly against Lebanon.
Still, the omission of Mabkhout, and Lima, surprised. Thankfully for Bento and the UAE, it did not matter. Indeed, it could be considered a masterstroke. The UAE won 2-0, Mabkhout notched the second late on, and the good times under Bento keep rolling.
Admittedly, the UAE had to overcome a few shaky moments early on – Khalid Essa’s poor clearance allowed Abdullah Al Hashash to drive a shot at goal, while Khalifa Al Hammadi almost turned an Essa block into his own net – to edge in front.
If Caio Canedo’s fine effort from the angle was unlucky to cannon back off the Bahrain post just before the half hour, then just after it, there was no good fortune required.
Harib Abdullah, himself back in the starting XI, broke forward, cut back sharply and played the ball to Ali Saleh. Spotting a white shirt stationed beyond him to his left, the Al Wasl captain rolled in Abdullah Ramadan, who finished well past Bahrain goalkeeper Ibrahim Lutfalla.
The hosts, managed by former Wasl manager Juan Antonio Pizzi, did have their chances thereafter. On 58 minutes, Mohammed Marhoon swivelled and stung Essa’s palms. Seconds later, Marhoon played in Kamil Al Aswad, who somehow toe-poked well wide. Al Hashash then sent a shot way off target and headed a corner wide as well.
With 13 minutes remaining, Adil went down with what appeared to be cramp, and Bento sent for Mabkhout. He was immediately passed the armband.
Still, Bahrain poured forward. Amine Benadi headed a cross the wrong side of the UAE upright when he really should have scored. From an accommodating spot, Marhoon curled a free-kick over.
Then, the UAE secured the win. A poor Bahrain clearance eventually found its way to Mabkhout, who slid in Ramadan, only for the UAE midfielder to be flattened as he shaped to shoot. Penalty awarded, Mabkhout coolly converted. UAE goal No 84 was his.
With the triumph, the UAE made it maximum points from two 2026 qualifiers, leaving Bento’s burgeoning side in a perfect position as qualification halts until March. Attention now turns to January’s Asian Cup.
Mabkhout decision vindicated, and with five wins from five since his appointment, Bento can point to an ideal start personally, also.