The UAE players celebrate after defeating Malaysia in the second round of the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asia Cup qualifiers on Thursday. Salah Omer / Gulf Today
Mohammad Abdullah, Staff Reporter
Ali Ahmed Mabkhout and Fabio Lima scored a brace each as the UAE got off to a winning start in the second round of the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asia Cup qualifiers with a 4-0 rout of Malaysia on Thursday.
Mabkhout’s double takes him past Lionel Messi and Sunil Chhetri as the second highest scoring active player in international football, only behind Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, according to AFC website.
The UAE overcame the first hurdle, not only keeping their hopes alive but also boosting their chances of moving into the next round. The victory will surely lift the mood in the camp.
With the victory, the UAE moved to the second spot in the standings with 9 points from five games as third place Thailand were held by Indonesia in another match played at Maktoum Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Stadium in Dubai.
Mabkhout continued his stellar form as he broke the deadlock in the 19th minute to put the UAE 1-0 up. He dodged the Malaysian goalkeeper and tapped the ball from outside the 30-yard box to slot the opener to the joy of thousands of spectators, who had flocked to the stadium to root for their team.
Mabkhout got quickly into his groove and seemed to have picked where he left against Jordan in the friendly, scoring a brace as the UAE tuned up for the tournament with a 5-1 rout of their opponents.
Mabkhout is in the form of his life as he was also the highest scorer in the domestic league with 25 goals and 10 assists, steering Al Jazira to the Arabian Gulf League (AGL) title.
Fabio heaped more misery on hapless Malaysia as he found the back of the nets to add another, making it 2-0 in the 82nd minute.
In the last ten minutes, the UAE strikers added two more goals to take the final score line to 4-0. The Malaysian team tried hard to restore the parity but failed to penetrate the tight defence of the UAE team, who seem to be grooming well under coach Bert Van Marwijk.
Marwijk has returned to the UAE as coach in his second stint after parting ways with the whites almost 18 months ago. The Dutch is a shrewd planner, who masterminded Saudi Arabia’s qualification to the 2018 World cup held in Russia.
In the first leg also, Mabkhout had struck twice as the UAE came from behind to defeat Malaysia 2-1 in an away match in September in 2019.
The match also marked the return of the fans to the stadium after a long time. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, the matches are being played behind closed doors.
But the UAE FA tested the waters in the President’s Cup final and allowed the fans to attend the match with a 30 per cent capacity and strict protocols.
The experiment turned out to be successful and the UAE FA permitted the fans to watch their stars in action once again with the same protocols.
The fans were allowed at 30 per cent capacity with strict safety protocols. They were required to show their vaccination cards along with a negative COVID-19 report conducted 48 hours before the start of the match.
Fans also came to the stadium in the full allowed capacity to root for their team.
“We are here to extend utmost support to our national team. They need our support in this crunch situation where they are fighting to keep the World Cup hopes alive,” said Saima Al Balooshi, who is a diehard fan of the UAE soccer team.
The UAE need to win all four matches to move to the next round of the qualifiers and keep their World Cup dreams alive.
The hosts are currently fourth in Group G. They will play three more matches in the second round. Only the winners and the four best runners-up will automatically advance to the next round.
Another UAE fan Ahmed Al Hammadi came all the way from Al Ain to attend the match. “I have been waiting for this for a long time. It is a great pleasure to see our favourite stars in action. I wish them all the best for this match and for rest of the games. We are confident out team can pull it off and still qualify for the World Cup finals,” said Hammadi.
The second round matches have been crammed into a jam-packed 13-day fixture to make up for the time lost due to the pandemic. The second round kicked off after a long period of 18 months, having been procrastinated three times earlier in the wake of the coronavirus.
The UAE are set to resume their quest for a berth in the World Cup when they take on Malaysia in the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers match on Thursday.
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