World Cup 2026 qualifiers a chance for UAE and Paulo Bento to reset and refocus

National team can put disappointment of Asian Cup behind them during double header against Yemen

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After the angst and the acrimony of the Asian Cup, the UAE return to competitive action in the rather more comfortable confines of 2026 World Cup qualifying Round 2.

Two matches in, the national team sit top of Group H, having last November opened their latest attempt to reach a second global finals with full points.

The UAE cast aside Nepal, the lowest-ranked team at this point, 4-0 in Dubai, then recorded a rousing 2-0 victory against Bahrain in Riffa.

Optimism was high, therefore, for another deep run at the Asian Cup. Better still, the UAE had begun life well with manager Paulo Bento. Appointed in July, the Portuguese guided his new side to six wins in his first six games; the 1-0 defeat to Oman in a friendly eight days out from Qatar felt more an aberration than an accurate precursor as to what was to come.

But, in Doha, the UAE came up significantly short. The opening 3-1 triumph against Hong Kong appeared more convincing on paper than it did on the pitch, and from there the national team stuttered before ultimately stumbling out from the last 16.

They failed to win a second match, eking through to the knockout stages as Group C runners-up on goal difference. In the all-or-nothing encounter with Tajikistan, tournament debutants although outstanding with Petr Sergt in charge, the UAE were outplayed and eventually undone.

Caio Canedo missed the crucial spot-kick in the shootout after Khalifa Al Hammadi’s last-gasp header had forced extra-time, and their race was run. Following successive semi-final appearances, the UAE could not make the last eight.

Of course, Bento faced questions on his future. On a series of selections, too, chiefly in excluding from the line-up, and then expelling from the squad, Ali Mabkhout.

The UAE’s all-time leading goalscorer, an Asian Cup Golden Boot winner, did not feature in all four fixtures in Qatar. Not when Sultan Adil, his precocious 19-year-old replacement, picked up an injury in the second game against Palestine and was pretty much ruled out for the tournament. Instead, Bento opted for Yahya Al Ghassani, nominally a winger, to lead the line.

Two months on, and Adil is back, as expected, in the squad. Mabkhout is not. Al Jazira are winless in their past three Adnoc Pro League matches and, in the most recent, against Kalba last Thursday, Mabkhout was subbed at half-time.

With the UAE, his continued omission – Bento said on Wednesday, Mabkhout's absence was due to his "really bad" attitude in training sessions – leaves a void up front.

However, if it represents a clean break from one generation, Bento is clearly looking to the next. In Adil, he has a genuinely exciting frontman who combines physical prowess with an obvious hunger to thrive with the national team and, crucially, a predator’s instinct.

Adil excelled, albeit briefly, at the Asian Cup, scoring in both of his appearances. The anticipation is he will again for the UAE, beginning in the World Cup qualifying double-header against Yemen that plays out this week and next.

He could offer Bento a respite from the criticism that cascaded in the aftermath of the Asian Cup. Vitally, the former Portugal and South Korea manager has retained support from the federation; he is six competitive matches into what his employers hope is a path that leads to the 2026 World Cup.

Yemen on Thursday in Abu Dhabi, and then again in Dammam, Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, provides Bento and the UAE the chance to reset and refocus. Win both, and they progress to the third round at the earliest opportunity.

It would then allow the 'Bento Rebuild', still in its infancy, space to breathe before the considerably more taxing next phase rolls around in September.

Updated: March 21, 2024, 5:04 AM