UAE are work in progress and Paulo Bento should be allowed to continue World Cup quest

National team's early Asian Cup exit was a huge disappointment but another change of coach is not the answer - for now

Paulo Bento saw his team knocked out of the Asian Cup at the last-16 stage by Tajikistan. AFP
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Paulo Bento’s immediate future was questioned. Of course it was.

The UAE manager may have been only six-and-a-bit months into his tenure, but an Asian Cup exit to Tajikistan, however inspired the tournament debutants have been, was damning.

The national team had not convinced through the group phase in Qatar. With one win from three matches, they needed goal difference to pip Palestine to a runner-up spot that sealed a spot in the knockouts.

Then came Sunday’s last-16 defeat to Tajikistan. Again, the UAE struggled, perhaps fortunate not to be long gone before Khalifa Al Hammadi headed an equaliser in stoppage time to give them hope.

But Caio Canedo’s spot-kick in the penalty shoot-out was saved, Tajikistan were in turn flawless, and the UAE’s exit was confirmed. Semi-finalists in the past two Asian Cups – a memorable third in 2015 and among the four best, on home soil, five years ago – the UAE were out way before their pre-tournament target.

In the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s loss, Bento was asked whether he was confident he would remain as manager.

“When you lose usually comes that question,” he deadpanned. “It is normal. My last concern is the confidence … I try to make the best, so the idea is to prepare the next two games for the [2026 World Cup] qualifiers and try to keep our best in the qualifying phase.

“The rest is something that doesn’t concern me at this moment.”

Yet before the focus switches to the March double-header against Yemen, some retrospection is required. The UAE did not play well in Qatar. Bento dropped Ali Mabkhout, the team’s principal name and the country’s all-time leading scorer; first from the starting XI, and then from the squad altogether.

In the fallout from Tajikistan, some have called into question Bento’s team selection and tactics. Why was Harib Abdallah, viewed the emerging star of the national team, not utilised more?

How can Fabio De Lima excel so well with an Al Wasl currently top of the Adnoc Pro League, but fail to really impact the UAE side?

And how can Mabkhout not feature at all, especially when Sultan Adil, the teenager preferred in the opening two Group C matches and whom, to be fair, responded with goals in both, was ruled out through injury.

On the latter, Bento explained – eventually and to some degree at least – that he would select only players fully committed to the cause.

If the UAE had advanced to the quarter-finals, a realistic aim before a ball was kicked in Qatar, then Bento would maybe instead be credited for having the strength of character to omit a player of Mabkhout’s stature.

Since his appointment last July, Portuguese has continually communicated, both publicly and to his team, that all players would be treated equally. Bento emphasised: in the good and the perceived bad.

The former Portugal and South Korea manager, as all coaches are prone to do, could perhaps point to moments that decided the UAE’s early departure from Doha.

Adil, impressive and hugely influential through the first two games, was unavailable for the next fixtures, robbing Bento of that sturdy spearhead. Al Hammadi was sent off in the draw with Palestine – so, too, was Bento – and at the time a point felt admirable.

Against Iran, among the tournament favourites, Yahya Al Ghassani did not convert a penalty to equalise, and moments later, the UAE were 2-0 down. At the Khalifa International Stadium on Sunday, the UAE lost Abdullah Ramadan, their key midfielder and tempo-setter, to injury 15 minutes in.

For sure, they can be interpreted as excuses, particularly when the UAE performed below expectation. However, although predictable, talk of Bento’s dismissal seems premature.

He has overseen six official matches. The UAE remain very much a work in progress. The squad needs significant improvement in areas – and, indeed, that falls upon the manager.

Crucially, Bento should be given time. The UAE began World Cup qualification in November with two victories, the second a gutsy 2-0 victory in Bahrain. Reaching a second global finals in history, remember, represents the overarching objective.

Yes, if the UAE show no real progress through the second round – still, they should ease into the next stage – then questions regarding Bento’s future would be merited.

But a seventh managerial change in four years, and yet another reset? Right now, that appears impetuous.

Updated: January 30, 2024, 1:12 PM