Paulo Bento warns UAE it would be big mistake to underestimate Tajikistan in Asian Cup

National team take on tournament debutants at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in last-16 clash on Sunday

UAE coach Paulo Bento reacts during the Asian Cup group-stage draw against Palestine on January 18, 2024. AFP
Powered by automated translation

UAE manager Paulo Bento has warned his side it would be a “big mistake” to underestimate Asian Cup last-16 opponents Tajikistan, while he would not confirm if Ali Mabkhout is back in contention to feature for the team.

The UAE, semi-finalists in the past two tournaments, take on the cup debutants at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan on Sunday with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.

Bento’s side qualified for the knockouts by finishing second to Iran in Group C, although they did require goal difference to seal an automatic spot.

Tajikistan, meanwhile, have been one of the stories of the tournament in Qatar. Drawn in Group A with hosts and defending champions Qatar, they secured a place in the last 16 by defeating Lebanon 2-1 on Monday to also take second spot.

However, the UAE still go into the match as favourites, even if Bento was keen on Saturday to play down that tag.

Speaking at the pre-match press conference, the Portuguese said: “Tajikistan are with a good motivation, because in the first time they come [to the tournament], they reach the knockout stage.

“But their motivation should not be higher than our motivation. We reached the first goal in this competition as well – to go to the knockout stage.

“We know that the game will be difficult, a balanced game. And I at least don’t consider our team favourites. We need to do many, many things well in order to go through to the quarter-final.

“And if we think that, because [Tajikistan] are for the first time in the competition, it's a team has less possibilities to win the game than us, we are making a big mistake.

“We should have all the respect for this team, for the way that they play, for what they've reached, and don't think about that kind of things."

Bento added: “We will try to do our best, play as well as possible, and at the same time, correct certain things that we did not do well in the last game.

“We know now there is not space to make too many mistakes because in this phase we don’t have that possibility as we had in the group stage.

“I’m sure that our players are going to show the right attitude and the wish to keep doing well and to go to the quarter-final, playing as well as possible. Because it’s the only way we have to reach our goal.”

A major talking point surrounding the UAE camp thus far has been the exclusion of Mabkhout. The country’s all-time leading goalscorer, winner of the 2015 Golden Boot, was an unused substitute in the opening two matches, with 19-year-old striker Sultan Adil preferred instead.

On Tuesday, in the 2-1 defeat to Iran, Mabkhout was not even in the squad – despite Adil being sidelined with a knee injury. Bento confirmed the teenager, who scored in the win against Hong Kong and the draw with Palestine, would not be available for Tajikistan.

“But now we want more. Everyone wants more. I can’t say to the players, ‘We are now happy, we can go home’. We will look how much petrol we have in the tank, how much energy we have left.”

On Mabkhout’s absence, he said: “Our options, or this case my options, are based on what I think is the best for the team, for each game. On what I have seen during the training sessions, which kind of behaviour the players show every time, on the pitch, outside the pitch.

“And when I collect all the information, I take the final decision.”

Bento’s opposite number, Petar Segrt, is eager for his side to ride the crest of their wave in Qatar, in a campaign that has already exceeded expectation.

Yet he rejected suggestions Tajikistan were content with what they have achieved to this point.

“We are not any more in the group stages, we don’t have to calculate: this game is everything or nothing,” Segrt said. “Maybe we celebrated [qualification] like we won the Asian cup, but for us the group stage was a sensational success."

Asked about galvanising his players one more time, Segrt replied: “We are all in euphoria. The players are flying, and everyone wants to play in this. We are six weeks without our families, without our normal lives, I don’t have to motivate them. They know, they have good character.

“When we celebrate, we celebrate, but we also have to focus on the game. The players and the coaches understand this. I believe in the players 100 per cent; nobody can tell me that they are not the heroes of Tajikistan.

“In the end, the UAE is a strong team, and have a fantastic coach. Both teams can win this game. I see it 50-50, believe me. It is the first time I can say that.”

Segrt, 57, has himself been one of the highlights of the tournament, at every press conference shaking the hands of each member of the media. His interviews are typically entertaining.

“It is not a one-man show,” the Croat said. “This is the reason why I am worried. Normally the UAE must be better than us, but on the field, we will laugh, dream and celebrate.

“But, if not, I will be the first to congratulate and shake the UAE hands. When I smile, it is because of love – we are not the underdog any more, we are the same – but we must take it seriously.

“You must have the right balance. We are not here to smile and celebrate. This is our dream. This is a historical game.”

Updated: January 27, 2024, 2:03 PM