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Misfiring naturalized stars feeling the heat

By SHI FUTIAN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2021-06-09 09:22
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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.

Pressure builds on below-par imports ahead of crucial Cup qualifying clash

China's naturalized stars are facing mounting pressure to deliver following the team's lackluster performance in Monday's World Cup qualifying win over the Philippines.

Chief among the critics' concerns are the continuing struggles of Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson), with the Brazil-born striker clearly lacking sharpness in the 2-0 victory, despite showing glimpses of his creativity up front.

England-born defender Jiang Guangtai (aka Tyias Browning) showed a degree of consistency at the back, although doubts remain about his quality against stronger rivals such as Syria, not to mention China's possible opponents in the next phase, Japan and South Korea.

Team China's latest Brazil-born addition, Alan, has only featured off the bench in his first two matches. On Monday, he again had little time to influence the action after being introduced to the fray in the 87th minute.

England-born Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris), meanwhile, has yet to play under head coach Li Tie.

"From the time of former national team head coach Marcello Lippi until now, I really haven't seen the value of the naturalized players," said former China international Li Weifeng in an online interview.

"It's very normal to score when you play against weak teams. The real test for the naturalized players is whether they can help the team against strong rivals."

After a tepid first half from Team China on Monday, star striker Wu Lei broke the deadlock from the penalty spot in the 57th minute, before Wu Xinghan's 65th-minute strike sealed the points in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.

Compared with last week's 7-0 victory over Guam in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Team China struggled to exert dominance over the stronger Philippines squad.

Defeat against Syria next Tuesday would likely end China's chances of reaching the third round of Asian zone qualifying. Runaway Group A leader Syria advanced thanks to a win over Guam on Monday. China is second in the group, and hopes to progress as one of the four best second-place finishes, but ranked sixth among those teams at the time of writing.

"We delivered a 0-0 in the first half. The only words I can say are 'nothing accomplished'. The team's defense and attack were disjointed, which gave the Philippines great chances to score," renowned sports commentator Han Qiaosheng wrote on Weibo.

"Head coach Li Tie made changes in the second half and moved Wu Lei to his preferred position where the striker gave his answer, before Wu Xinghan hit the net.

"And I really want to say something about Tang Miao and Wu Xinghan. In the first half, they received heavy criticism from fans online. Wu Xinghan couldn't break the defense of the rivals, while Tang made terrible passes in the first half. So they linked up well to score the second goal, which was indeed redemption for them."

The remaining Group A qualifiers had originally been scheduled for a bio-secure bubble in Suzhou. However, following China's opening 7-0 win over Guam-played in front of 30,000 spectators-COVID-19 cases in the Maldives and Syrian camps prompted the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) to move the games to Sharjah.

The Chinese Football Association had attempted to make the sudden switch as comfortable as possible for the squad-even booking an entire hotel in the Emirati city to ensure the players' safety. However, the loss of home advantage and Sharjah's searing heat have so far proved to be sizable challenges for Team China.

Head coach Li has, therefore, appealed to fans to be sympathetic to his squad's situation.

"No single match is easy, and I'm satisfied with my players' performance on the pitch today. They were focused and stayed hungry for the entire 90 minutes, and this is a very important victory," said Li.

"A soccer match is 90 minutes. I don't want to just comment on the first half and I don't want to say too much about what we said in the dressing room at halftime.

"Under this competition format, every game is crucial. We can only win now to earn the chance to fight against stronger rivals. Each match now is a final for us. I hope the players can quickly return to their peak condition and focus on our next rival."

Before the crunch clash with Syria, China is expected to bag three more points against minnows the Maldives on Friday.

Syria joined Group F winner Japan in the next phase of qualifying after a first-half double from Mardak Mardikian helped it beat Guam 3-0.

Syria's seventh win in as many matches confirmed it as the winner of Group A and ensured it will be among the 12 teams competing in the next phase, where four World Cup berths at next year's finals in Qatar will be up for grabs. A fifth team from the continent could make the cut via an intercontinental playoff.

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