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Saudi, UAE stroll, Kuwait shocked: 5 things learned from start of Asian qualifiers for 2026 World Cup

RIYADH: Asia’s qualification campaign for the 2026 World Cup, and also the 2027 AFC Asian Cup, kicked off on Thursday with most of the fancied teams negotiating expected wins and India pulling off the shock result of the round.

The top two from each of the nine groups of four progress to the final stage of World Cup qualification, and here are five things learned from Thursday’s action.

Al-Shehri with a point to prove for Saudi Arabia

Head coach Roberto Mancini said after Saudi Arabia defeated Pakistan 4-0 that the pouring rain in the first half was a good omen. That remains to be seen in what was an expected victory, but it was notable for how dangerous Saleh Al-Shehri looked.

The striker, who was scoring against Argentina in the World Cup just a year ago, has had little playing time for Al-Hilal this season as the team — propelled by Aleksandar Mitrovic’s goals — has soared to the top of the standings in both the domestic and Champions League. The Jeddah-born forward showed his ability to find the net with a fine shot early in the game and his penalty early in the second half sealed the win. He could have had more too and perhaps his lack of playing time had a part in that.

There were eyebrows raised when Mancini did not select Firas Al-Buraikan, who plays and scores more at home, so the Italian will be delighted that Al-Shehri is looking like his main man in attack. He will be happier still if he can do something similar in Jordan on Tuesday, though that will be a tougher task.

Iraq thrill fans on home soil

Iraq thrashed a decent Indonesia team 5-1 to give more than 60,000 fans in the southern city of Basra much to shout about.

The only way it could have been better would have been if the Lions of Mesopotamia were allowed to return to the capital Baghdad to play a competitive match for the first time in over 20 years.

For now, though, those watching enjoyed the show with the teenage Ali Jasim looking very good indeed.

Al-Ittihad fans will remember the Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya playmaker pulling the strings in a recent Asian Champions League loss that resulted in coach Nuno Santo getting his marching orders.

Against Indonesia, the 19-year-old recorded three assists, showing his creative talents, vision, and reading of the game – not to mention a fine technical ability.

Under Spanish coach Jesus Casas, Iraq look to be heading in the right direction and will take control of the group if they can win in Vietnam on Tuesday.

Mabkhout gives UAE winning start

The UAE defeated Nepal 4-0 in Dubai, a result that was never in doubt from when Khalifa Al-Hammadi put the hosts ahead early on.

The only question from that point was how many goals the 1990 World Cup participants would go on and score. Ali Mabkhout got two to take his international tally to 83.

It was not the most fluid of performances but against a team ranked 173 in the world, it did not have to be.

The UAE did enough to ensure that coach Paulo Bento, appointed in July, could make changes in the second half to rest players ahead of a tougher test in Bahrain on Tuesday.

It is so far so good under the Portuguese boss – who took South Korea to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup – with four wins from four. It will take time to impose his preferred patient build-up play but there will be opportunities to develop and fine-tune the style in a group that should present few problems for his team.

Kuwait suffer huge blow from India

The first Asian Arab team to make the World Cup back in 1982 are going to have their work cut out to make the next stage after a 1-0 home loss against India.

It has been a long time since their glory days, and it also feels like a while since they thrashed the Indians 9-1 in 2010.

That was never going to happen this time, with India having made significant strides while Kuwait seem to be going backwards. At home, they just did not create enough and struggled to break down a disciplined and hard-working Indian side.

Preparations under Portuguese boss Rui Bento had been solid with recent wins over Syria and Bahrain and there was some cause for optimism, but it is becoming the same old story for the team that have not reached the latter stages of qualification since the 2006 campaign.

It is not over yet. Kuwait should be able to beat Afghanistan, who lost 8-1 in Qatar, on Tuesday and hope that India lose to the group leaders. Overall, though, there are going to have to be improvements if there is a chance of progressing.

Oman on track while Palestine and Lebanon draw

After their fine showing in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, Oman were awarded top-seed status for this group stage.

It means that Branko Ivankovic’s men have an easier path, and they certainly had a comfortable first game, defeating lowly Chinese Taipei 3-0 in Muscat.

It means that the Reds can go to Kyrgyzstan on Tuesday knowing that even a draw is likely to put them four points clear of third place and on course for a smooth passage into the top two spots and beyond.

Lebanon’s 0-0 draw with Palestine was hardly a surprise given how evenly matched the two teams are. Played in Sharjah instead of Beirut and behind closed doors, it was an eerie atmosphere, but the game was as tight as all expected with Palestine looking the more likely to score.

As Australia should top the group, the competition for second is going to be fierce between Lebanon and Palestine and on this evidence, it may well go to the final kick.