Ali Mabkhout and Fabio De Lima both at the double as UAE thrash Malaysia in World Cup qualifier

National team kick-start their campaign with 4-0 win in Dubai

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The UAE defeated Malaysia in the searing Thursday night heat, and mission one of four was complete.

Ali Mabkhout – who else? – notched two goals and Fabio De Lima followed suit. The UAE struck three times late on at the Zabeel Stadium for a vital victory, kickstarting a frenetic conclusion to the second round of World Cup qualification with a hearty 4-0 win.

In an evening, they jumped from fourth in Group G to second. Level now on games with front-runners Vietnam, they sit two points back. Suddenly, the progression picture looks significantly rosier.

Before even a ball was kicked in this pandemic-postponed campaign restart, UAE manager Bert van Marwjik had laid bare the stark reality, publicly and in private. The layout of the group demanded it, even if the permutations did not corroborate exactly his pre-match call to arms.

Still, the message was clear: the UAE were seeking maximum points from their four outstanding fixtures – they all take place in Dubai during a 13-day window – to keep alive hopes of a second appearance at a global finals.

And so they delivered. After growing slowly into the game, they seized the lead in the 19th minute. Abdullah Ramadan, that beautifully cultured midfielder making only his second competitive appearance, drove his pass from quarterback range over the Malaysia defence. Mabkhout, teammate for club and country, controlled it superbly, and in one motion deftly lifted the ball beyond goalkeeper Farizal Marlias.

Honed at Al Jazira, the recently crowned UAE champions, the goal signalled the home side’s burgeoning confidence. Already his national team’s record scorer, and comfortably at that, Mabkhout climbed to 72 goals in international football.

The Ramadan-Mabkhout connection was on display again moments later. Only this time, the latter was ruled to have sprang the ragged Malaysian backline too early; by the time Khalil Ibrahim had placed the pass into an empty goal, the referee’s assistant had flagged.

Ibrahim, in fact, could have earlier continued his late-season spark of form for Al Wahda. Played in by Khalfan Mubarak on seven minutes, the winger’s curled effort was expertly palmed away by Marlias.

Not that the UAE had it entirely their own way. Not long before half time, Malaysia allowed Guilherme de Paula, the naturalised Brazilian-born striker making his debut, too much time and too much space in the area. De Paula, under pressure to deliver given his newfound status, miscued terribly his header.

Malaysia emerged for the second half with the bit between their collective teeth. Perhaps piqued by the UAE’s superiority – the intrigue play, the flick here and flick there – they slid into challenges with a tad more gusto. Ramadan, predictably, was a target.

On the hour, Mabkhout, rather uncharacteristically, missed his. Driving into the Malaysia penalty area, he cut inside on his right and dragged wide a low shot.

In a flash, the UAE should have doubled their advantage. However, De Lima found only the palms of Marlias following substitute Caio Canedo’s pullback. Both forwards, originally from Brazil, were making their competitive bows for the national team. Soon after, Mabkhout sent a shot over. Although in the ascendancy, the UAE still needed a cushion.

Normal service resumed, though, through Caio’s blocked shot and De Lima’s saved effort. Nine minutes out, Mabkhout should have sealed the points. Released by De Lima, he shot straight at Marlias.

It was left, then, to De Lima to take matters into his own hands. With a swish of his left foot, and from a tight angle, he arced a stellar shot into the net. The clock had struck 83 minutes; the hosts had the win. For good measure, Mabkhout finished adroitly, then De Lima tapped home as Malaysian minds had gone.

Next up for the UAE, in this devilishly demanding 13-day test of nerves, are Thailand on Monday. Just across Dubai on Thursday, the Southeast Asians resumed their Group G bid with a 2-2 draw against bottom side Indonesia. No doubt, the result helps the UAE’s cause. Mission one complete, Van Marwijk’s men will look to make it a double in quick-fire fashion.