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Li reinforces for last roll of dice

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-05-12 09:38
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From left: Naturalized players Ai Kesen, A Lan and Fei Nanduo, all originally from Brazil, and England-born Jiang Guangtai are included in the Team China squad for crucial World Cup qualifiers in May and June.

Five naturalized players and return of Wu Lei bolster Team China for Cup qualifiers

With five naturalized players included and star man Wu Lei back in the fold, head coach Li Tie appears to be going for broke in a bid to salvage Team China's World Cup dream.

On Monday, the Chinese Football Association announced a 26-man squad for an extended training stint to prepare for the team's crucial forthcoming World Cup qualifiers. Training will kick off in Shanghai on Saturday and last until mid-June, also taking place in Suzhou, Jiangsu province.

Spain-based Wu will reportedly return to China to join up with his international teammates after his club Espanyol's match against Cartagena this weekend.

Eight-time Chinese Super League champion Guangzhou FC is the main contributor to the squad, with seven players, including four naturalized stars: Brazil-born strikers Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson), Alan, Fei Nanduo (aka Fernandinho) and England-born defender Jiang Guangtai (aka Tyias Browning).

Beijing Guo'an contributes six players, including former England youth international Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris).

The five-strong naturalized contingent-the most ever to be selected for the squad-should improve China's chances, but Li's team still has a mountain to climb to qualify his team for next year's World Cup in Qatar.

With four games left to play in Group A, China is eight points adrift of leader Syria and only leads third-place Philippines on goal difference. The eight group winners and four best second-place finishers will enter the next phase of qualifying. China will face the Maldives and Guam in late May before taking on the Philippines and Syria in June. Li's men will at least enjoy home advantage, with the matches to be played in Suzhou.

Li succeeded Marcello Lippi as head coach in early 2020, but with the COVID-19 pandemic playing havoc with the international schedule, the qualifiers will be Li's first official games since taking charge.

He was notched seven friendly wins in that time, but the qualifiers will provide a truer test of his abilities, with the first match against Guam on May 30.

Gelling the five naturalized players in his squad will be one of Li's top priorities over the next month. To date, Ai Kesen and Li Ke are the only two foreign-born players to feature in the qualifying campaign-back in 2019 when Ai Kesen netted three goals.

There are also concerns over Wu's sharpness. The 29-year-old has not participated in a Team China training camp for over a year due to his club commitments in Spain and pandemic travel restrictions. In addition, he has spent most of this season on the bench after falling down the pecking order at Espanyol.

Fitness issues also look like giving Li some headaches. China's last training camp in March was hit by injuries to key players, and just hours after Monday's squad announcement, Shanghai Shenhua goalkeeper Zeng Cheng was ruled out of Li's plans.

Zeng sustained suffered two fractured ribs after a collision while defending a corner in the 75th minute of Shenhua's 1-1 draw with Hebei FC on Monday.

Confirming his withdrawal from the national squad, Zeng posted a picture of himself from his hospital bed on Weibo and wrote: "Thanks to the efforts and cooperation of the club's leaders and the hospital, I have received great treatment. Also, it was an honor for me to know I had been selected for the national team training camp. I have always been proud to fight for my nation.

"I want to thank the trust of the head coach Li Tie and the entire coaching team. I sincerely believe the national team will bring back victories. Fight on Team China!"

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