Youngster Sultan Adil steps up as UAE given stern test by Hong Kong in Asian Cup opener

Paulo Bento's side made to work hard for 3-1 victory in Group C clash in Doha

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When it comes to tournament football, winning is all that matters. At least that will be the line from the UAE after an edgy 3-1 victory over Hong Kong in their Asian Cup opener on Sunday night.

As group stage starts go, Hong Kong, ranked 150th in the world by Fifa, is about as kind as it gets. Yet this UAE side is a work in progress under Paulo Bento, the Portuguese coach only appointed in July, and their unheralded opponents undoubtedly raised their game for the big occasion.

That made for an uncomfortable night for Bento and his team at the Khalifa International Stadium, with the result in the balance right up to the 95th minute when substitute Yahya Al Ghassani won and then converted his team's second penalty of the game. Even then, the UAE had to nervously watch as Hong Kong had a goal chalked off as second-half stoppage time lurched into double figures.

The UAE's first penalty of the night had also been scored by the man who won it – Sultan Adil, the promising centre-forward given the nod ahead of his nation's 85-goal all-time record scorer Ali Mabkhout.

Philip Chan levelled matters early in the second half, and while Zayed Sultan promptly restored the UAE's lead, they were never able to fully shake off a Hong Kong side eager to inflict the tournament's first shock result.

Bento had spoken pre-match about his faith in a cluster of emerging talent called up for the tournament, and that faith was evident in his selection for the opening match of Group C.

Al Jazira's Khalifa Al Hammadi, at just 25, was the veteran of a youthful back-line, while Bento's most eye-catching pick came up front where the 19-year-old Adil was preferred to the legendary Mabkhout.

It took around 20 minutes for the youngster to get his first look at goal as some neat play down the right released Sultan, but his low cross was met by Oliver Gerbig, whose robust challenge cleared the danger and left Adil in a heap on the deck.

Up until that point the UAE's attacking threat had failed to materialise, save for the efforts of Caio Canedo, whose waspish presence kept the Hong Kong defenders alert and eventually led to a booking for Yue Tze Nam.

But just as the UAE's start began moving from 'quiet' towards 'unconvincing' – their manager becoming increasingly animated on the touchline – they found themselves ahead, with their young striker instigating and then sealing the breakthrough.

As the ball dropped on the edge of the box, Adil poked an improvised shot goalwards, striking the arm of Gerber and earning a penalty with the help of a VAR review. With no hesitation, the teenage forward scooped up the ball, took responsibility and confidently stroked home the spot kick for his second international goal.

With Hong Kong reeling, the UAE looked to hammer home their advantage. First Abdulla Idrees sliced high and wide while well positioned before Fabio Lima's strike from distance thumped back off the underside of the Hong Kong bar.

However, if Adil's goal was a cue for the UAE to go through the gears, Hong Kong hadn't read the script and just minutes into the second half they restored parity. Idrees might have done better in stopping Everton Camargo's cross, but in it came, and with Sultan dithering at the back post, Chan barged past him to make it 1-1.

To their credit, the UAE's response was immediate, and Sultan was able to make amends for his error.

After Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung Fai had foiled both Abdalla Ramadan's low strike and Adil's follow-up, Sultan arrived to tuck home the loose ball and restore his side's lead.

Despite falling behind, Hong Kong retained their ambition, while the UAE craved the comfort a third would provide.

They thought they were on their way to getting it when the referee was sent to the pitch-side monitor to check for a penalty. UAE substitute Abdulla Hamad had been chopped down in the box but the referee somewhat controversially decided he had already been on the way down before contact was made.

By that time Al Ghassani was on the pitch and the winger opened his box of tricks to win and then convert from the spot for 3-1.

With Group C's other two sides - Iran and Palestine - still to meet in the late game, this was a vital step towards the knockout stages for the UAE. It wasn't, however, a performance to strike fear into the hearts of the competition's favourites.

Updated: January 14, 2024, 7:49 PM