UAE's Asian Cup hopes rest on talisman Ali Mabkhout and promising support cast

National team begin continental campaign against Hong Kong on Sunday

UAE's Ali Mabkhout beats Nepal's defence during their 2026 World Cup qualifying match at the Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Ali Mabkhout’s most memorable moments with the UAE national team have arguably come in the Asian Cup.

Spearhead to the enchanting side that wowed in Australia in 2015, the Al Jazira striker departed the tournament with not only a bronze medal – the UAE’s best performance outside of the Emirates – but with the Golden Boot, too.

Mabkhout struck twice in the Group B opener against Qatar, then within 14 seconds of the next match against Bahrain. An expert finish from Omar Abdulrahman’s exquisite pass, it remains the record for fastest goal in Asian Cup history.

It was Mabkhout, again, who notched early in what became the famous quarter-final win against Japan, the defending champions, when his seventh-minute goal gave the UAE something to rally around. Mahdi Ali’s men protected the lead like their lives depended on it, only to eventually surrender in Sydney as the tie entered its final stages.

Still, in the subsequent shootout, Mabkhout followed Abdulrahman’s impish Panenka penalty by keeping his cool also, and the UAE registered one of the great Asian Cup upsets.

If the semi-final against the hosts proved a step too far – Australia prevailed 2-0 – then Mabkhout ensured his country’s historic finish by netting the winner in the third-placed play-off with Iraq. He concluded the tournament with an unrivalled five goals.

Four years later, at the expanded tournament in the UAE, Mabkhout inflated his own Asian Cup haul. He scored another four times en route to another semi-final appearance, exacting some sort of revenge against Australia by deciding the last-eight encounter in Al Ain.

Latching onto a Milos Degenek mistake, Mabkhout displayed his speed of mind and foot to round Mat Ryan and send the UAE through.

They are traits that have sustained through to this rescheduled Asian Cup, which kicks off in Qatar on Friday. Even at 33, Mabkhout remains the UAE’s go-to guy, the forward building on his contribution in the past two continental competitions by since becoming the all-time leading goalscorer both for country and in the UAE top-flight.

In the same year the 2019 Asian Cup played out, Mabkhout usurped Adnan Al Talyani as the national team’s most prolific marksman, his two goals against Indonesia taking him to 54 in the international game. He has since added another 31.

This season, and having long before raced out alone in domestic football, Mabkhout broke beyond 300 goals for Jazira, his boyhood club.

He has been integral, as well, to Paulo Bento’s promising start as UAE manager. Mabkhout netted twice in November’s opening fixture to 2026 World Cup qualification, against Nepal, then added to that home double with making safe a second successive victory five days later in Bahrain.

He began the qualifier on the bench, a hugely surprising call by Bento, but one that ultimately reaped its reward. Mabkhout, undoubtedly the star name in what is a transitional UAE squad, seemingly accepted the decision with little fuss. He responded just as Bento would have wanted.

Irrespective of the reduced role in Rigga, Mabkhout is expected to again be key to the UAE’s Asian Cup hopes this time around. Fortunately, for the national team, he has a more-than-competent support cast in Doha.

Ali Saleh, while only 23, captains Al Wasl, current leaders of the Adnoc Pro League; club teammates, the naturalised duo of Fabio De Lima and Caio Canedo, carry a sizeable goal threat, too.

In Harib Abdallah and Yahya Al Ghassani, the UAE possess a pair of wingers that can petrify opposition defences – Abdallah, 21, could be a breakout star this month – while Al Wahda midfielder Tahnoon Al Zaabi offers a creative spark from the bench.

Meanwhile, Sultan Adil may be still a teenager, and have a mere six caps to his name, yet he is a mobile and muscular frontman who can lead the line in Mabkhout’s absence. It is something the UAE have not had since Ahmed Khalil succumbed long ago to persistent fitness issues.

Unlike in 2019, the UAE enter their latest Asian Cup campaign – they begin Group C on Sunday against Hong Kong – full of forward promise, even if concerns still linger at the back.

In truth, a third semi-final run feels a step too far for a group still a work in progress under Bento, but this delayed Asian Cup should be used also to provide a platform towards the next World Cup.

Whether Mabkhout’s status within the team maintains through to 2026 is far from guaranteed. But, right now, he is crucial to UAE hopes in Qatar for sure.

Updated: January 12, 2024, 12:52 PM