Ali Mabkhout celebrates his goal against Malaysia. Image Credit: Reuters

Dubai: Ali Mabkhout scored either side of half-time to secure full points for the UAE against Malaysia in their opening qualifying match for the Fifa World Cup 2022 and AFC Asian Cup 2023 Group G tie in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

Down by a first-minute goal, the UAE rode on Mabkhout’s strikes in the 43rd and 75th minute to hand Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk his first competitive win for the Whites.

The three points puts the UAE in joint second along with Malaysia, while Vietnam — held goalless in their opener by Thailand last week — went to the top with four points following a 3-0 drubbing of Indonesia.

Malaysia’s confidence was sky-high after their last-gasp 3-2 win over Indonesia last week. But, playing in their first match of the campaign, the UAE showed early signs of rust until Mabkhout intervened with his brace for full points.

The UAE had inflicted Malaysia their heaviest ever defeat at the same stage of Russia 2018 and UAE 2019 qualifying in 2015 — winning 10-0 in Abu Dhabi. But there were no signs of a repeat of that performance at the packed Bukit Jalil National Stadium as the home team nudged ahead with the match just 33 seconds young.

Naturalised Gambian striker Mohamadu Sumareh — celebrating his 28th birthday on Tuesday — was once again the architect of the opening goal. Nicknamed ‘Keli Boy’ by Pahang FA fans because of his silk-smooth dribbling as well as ball trickery, Sumareh advanced to the edge of the area before releasing the ball for Matthew Davies to send in a pinpoint cross from the right that Syafiq Ahmad headed home.

The early goal seemed to rattle the visitors a bit, but they gradually fought their way back with Mabkhout missing a sitter in the eighth minute.

Malaysia continued to pile on the pressure and should have doubled the score in the 14th minute with Ahmad poking a Davies’ cross wide of the target. Ten minutes later, Malaysia were once again in command when Davies’ perfect cross landed at the feet of Brendan Gan. But the midfielder failed to control, sending the ball ballooning over the UAE goal.

Slowly, the UAE started asserting themselves. Mabkhout came close to an equaliser in the 29th minute and only a last-ditch lunge from goalkeeper Farizal Marlias saved them. But, Mabkhout — many a time in the thick of things — finally got the equaliser when he jumped highest to head in a cross from Mohammad Al Menhali with two minutes left before half-time.

The second half belonged to the UAE and the visitors should have sealed the encounter early when young Ali Saleh drove into the area and placed wide of goal with only Marlias to beat. In the 52nd minute, winger Khalid Ebrahim came up with a smooth run from the right but was dispossessed in the nick of time by Shahrul Saad.

The home team were dealt a blow in the 65th minute when the dangerous Sumareh limped out with injury. After that it was the UAE all the way, with Mabkhout finding the goal for a second time on the night on the 75th minute when he went unchallenged from the halfway line and placed past Marlias.

Malaysia tried their best for a leveller, but the UAE did well to maintain their narrow lead and return with full points. The UAE will next host Indonesia, while Malaysia will travel to Vietnam for the next round matches on October 10.