UAE manager Paulo Bento has faith in young guns as they prepare for Asian Cup opener

National team take on Hong Kong in Group C in Qatar on Sunday

UAE manager head coach Paulo Bento during training in Abu Dhabi ahead of the Asian Cup in Qatar. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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UAE manager Paulo Bento is putting faith in his young players to help fire the side’s Asian Cup bid, insisting he does not feel any pressure heading into the Group C opener in Qatar on Sunday.

The UAE, semi-finalists in the past two tournaments, kick off their campaign against Hong Kong at the Khalifa International Stadium in Al Rayyan.

Bento’s men then face Palestine and group favourites, and three-time winners, Iran. The two top sides are guaranteed to progress to the last 16, together with the four best third-placed teams.

Appointed in July and thus making his debut with UAE at a major tournament, Bento’s squad includes a number of relatively inexperienced players.

Chief among those is 19-year-old striker Sultan Adil, 21-year-old midfielder Mohammed Abbas and 22-year-old defensive pair Zayed Sultan and Bader Nasser. The quartet, all competing at a first Asian Cup, have 15 caps between them.

Speaking on Saturday at the pre-match press conference, Bento said of the youthful make-up of the group: “The thing that is important is that we bring opportunities to the young players; it’s important to give them some experience.

“Maybe it’s not the best moment because it’s in a difficult and big competition. I will say it is not the best context. But we have some good players, young players, talented players. They are showing the right desire and the right wish to play and help the team.

“As I said in my first press conference [as UAE manager], it doesn’t matter to me how young or how old they are, the most important for us is the quality, the attitude.

“We should play with the players that show the right attitude and the wish and the proper desire to play a competition like this and represent the country in the best possible way.

“We know we are going to face difficult teams, experienced teams, but we will do our best in this competition, thinking game by game. Again, with the players with the wish and desire to represent the country in the proper way.”

At 150th in the Fifa world standings, Hong Kong represent the lowest-ranked team in the tournament – the UAE are 64th – although they will still be determined to make an impression on their return to the Asian Cup for the first time since 1968.

Hong Kong have yet to win a match at the tournament in four previous appearances, with a record that reads three draws and seven defeats.

“We know that it will be a difficult game against a team that we respect,” Bento said. “They play with a lot of activity, intensity in the defensive process, trying to make good transitions. It’s a team that plays direct.

“They show a lot of aggression to win second balls and develop their counter attacks; we should be aware in that moment of the game.

“The preparation has been good. It’s an important game for us, the first game for the competition. We expect a tough game where we will try to do our best and reach the best result – and that is of course to get the three points.”

Bento, who confirmed right-back Khalid Al Dhanhani as the only UAE player unavailable for Sunday, said it was up to the players to show improvement from their past two friendlies.

Having won Bento’s first five games in charge, the UAE laboured last month to a 1-0 victory in the friendly against Kyrgyzstan – they required Ali Mabkhout’s 91st-minute penalty to prevail – and last Saturday lost 1-0 to Oman in Abu Dhabi.

On whether Bento feels an expectation to deliver another semi-final run for the UAE, the former Portugal and South Korea manager said: “The question is not the pressure that is on the coach, the question is the pressure or the lack of pressure the players have. This is most important.

“In the end, they are the ones that are going to play. I am not, I just go to attend the game a little bit closer than those in the stands. The most important for me personally is prepare the guys in the best possible way.

“Of course it is important they feel a little bit pressure, because the game is important. It’s not a decisive game, but the first is always important.

“For me especially, there is no pressure. The Asian Cup is not the first competition: the World Cup, the Euros, too much time in these kind of moments and for me it’s an honour and a privilege to be here with another team in this competition.

“But pressure I feel in other moments and with other things, but not in a football game.”

Updated: January 13, 2024, 2:11 PM