UAE Asian Cup talking points: Mabkhout's role, midfield balance and offensive options

National team take on Tajikistan on last-16 clash on Sunday

Ali Mabkhout is the UAE's record goalscorer but has not been used at the Asian Cup. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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Having finished as runners-up in Group C, the UAE will continue their Asian Cup campaign on Sunday in Qatar, with a last-16 tie against tournament debutants Tajikistan. Here we look at some of the national team’s main talking points leading into the knockout stage, as Paulo Bento’s side plot a path to the quarter-finals.

Deciding on the role Ali Mabkhout will play – if any

The decision to opt for Sultan Adil rather than Ali Mabkhout to lead the line for the UAE in the opening two matches surprised somewhat.

At 19, Adil had made only four senior appearances for the national team; Mabkhout, 33, sits as the country’s record goalscorer. But Bento went for the younger, more physical frontman in the games against Hong Kong and Palestine. Adil responded by scoring in both.

Yet a knee injury sustained in the latter ruled out the on-loan Ittihad Kalba striker for Iran on Tuesday – and, dependent on how far the UAE progress, possibly the tournament. However, instead of being restored to the starting XI against the group leaders, Mabkhout was omitted from the squad altogether.

The UAE coaching staff has explained the absence on the grounds of “technical and tactical reasons”. It will be intriguing to see if the 2015 Golden Boot winner, who has nine Asian Cup goals in all, is back in contention for Sunday.

Finding the right balance in central midfield

Abdullah Ramadan, the accomplished Al Jazira midfielder, has become a staple at the heart of the UAE side – fitness permitting – dating back to Bert van Marwijk’s first stint as manager.

Ramadan provides the guile in midfield, his long-range passing precise, his eye for a killer through ball sharp. In the past few years, he has offered the invention alongside Ali Salmeen’s industry.

However, Salmeen has had a chequered injury record of late, forcing Bento to look at other candidates to buttress his midfield. Yahia Nader started against Hong Kong, but the balance seemed off, the UAE too porous through the centre.

Majid Rashid came in for the Palestine encounter and did well, especially with his side reduced to 10 men from 37 minutes. He was selected again against Iran.

The feeling, though, remains that Salmeen, whose Asian Cup has been limited to almost an hour altogether as a substitute, is the ideal candidate to protect the UAE defence.

Improvement at full-back feels a necessity

It is an issue that has long plagued the UAE. For some time, the obvious choice on either side of the defence appeared to be Mahmoud Khamis, on the left, and Bandar Al Ahbabi, on the right.

However, Khamis slipped from view during Van Marwjik’s tenure, and in truth never did excel with the national team. Al Ahbabi, however, continues to represent an unexpected omission by Bento.

Instead, when employing a flat back four, the Portuguese has plumped for Abdullah Idris at left-back, and either Zayed Sultan or Khalid Al Dhahani at right-back. Idris and Sultan have each looked suspect, but they do have only 10 international appearances between them.

Against Iran, and with standout centre-back Khalifa Al Hammadi suspended, Bento went with a five-man defence, moving Al Dhahani more central and playing Harib Abdullah deeper, at left wing-back.

Although that gave the UAE a strong base from which to build, they are expected to revert to a four in the last 16. The make-up of the full-backs could play a key part in deciding the tie.

Al Ghassani aside, extract more from offensive options

Preferring to employ a 4-2-3-1 system, Bento places great emphasis on the three attacking midfielders to support the lone frontman, both in creating chances but also in chipping in with goals.

To the latter point, Yahya Al Ghassani has stepped up in Qatar, converting from the penalty spot against Hong Kong and then striking the all-important goal against Iran that secured runner-up spot in the group – by the finest of margins, on goal difference.

Finishing sublimely after a great solo burst, it also displayed Al Ghassani’s fortitude: he had earlier seen his spot-kick saved as the UAE spurned a golden opportunity to equalise.

Yet Al Ghassani, who played that match as the side’s spearhead, could do with some other players carrying the offensive burden. And, in Ali Saleh, Fabio De Lima, Caio Canedo and Tahnoun Al Zaabi, the UAE should have no shortage of suitors. The country’s chances of going deep will depend on others stepping up.

Embrace being able to quietly go about business

While qualifying for a fourth successive Asian Cup knockout stage should not be taken for granted, the UAE have not been at the forefront of the headlines in Qatar.

The hosts, for one, have rebounded brilliantly from their hugely disappointing World Cup on home soil, winning all three group games.

Iraq registered the greatest result of the opening rounds by defeating Japan, the tournament favourites. Jordan, and then Malaysia, both threatened famous wins against South Korea, only to be pegged back in both to draw. Tajikistan have won hearts by getting into the last 16, on tournament debut while, in joining them there, Syria and Indonesia evoked plenty of emotion.

And, perhaps the story thus far: Palestine will for the first time contest an Asian Cup knockout match, somehow coming through in the most trying circumstances given the devastation back home.

The UAE, therefore, are flying under the radar somewhat. Which, given that can bring with it less expectation and hence reduced pressure, could be used to their advantage.

Updated: January 28, 2024, 4:14 AM