Ai Kesen keen to take center stage

2021-01-26 12:06:37

Ai Kesen. [Photo/Xinhua] Naturalized star reckons positional switch can boost Team China's cause Naturalized star Ai Kesen hopes playing in a more central position up front can help salvage Team China's World Cup qualification dream. The Brazil-born forward was deployed on the right wing by former national team boss Marcello Lippi, but is now preparing for forthcoming qualifiers in his preferred No 9 role. Ai Kesen has thrived in that position for Guangzhou FC and reckons it will also bring out his best under Lippi's successor, Li Tie. "Right now the head coach is playing me in a position I'm very comfortable with. As a No 9, I feel I can display my full strength," Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson) told China Central Television over the weekend from Team China's training base in Haikou, Hainan province. "I can better help the team in this position and can better cooperate with my teammates to score goals. "I'm really looking forward to scoring for the national team in 2021. I've waited too long over the last year. For months, we've had no matches to play (because of the pandemic). Despite the Chinese Super League returning, there were no national team matches. "We will be ready and we'll try to score more goals. Our current aim is to enter the next stage of the World Cup Asian qualifiers. And we will try our best to have good performances in every game." Ai Kesen became the second naturalized player-after England-born Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris)-to earn a cap for Team China in 2019 when the national squad was still coached by Italian World Cup winner Lippi. The 31-year-old netted three goals in four qualifiers, but clearly feels he could have contributed more in a more central role. "The position I played in the national team was not my favorite, but of course I tried to adapt to help the team," Ai Kesen added. Li Tie is hopeful of welcoming another naturalized player, Alan, to the Hainan camp, which will continue until mid-February. "Alan actually has arrived in Guangzhou, but according to Hainan's pandemic prevention regulations, he now has to go through a long quarantine," said Li. "We are still communicating with his club (Guangzhou FC), and we hope he can join us for the second half of the training camp. Alan produced great performances (on loan at Beijing Guo'an) in the 2020 Chinese Super League season." Strong bonds Ai Kesen lamented the absence of fellow Brazil-born forward Alan, but says he has formed strong bonds with plenty of other players in the squad and continues to integrate well. "In the dressing room, I speak Portuguese most of the time. Yu Dabao played in Portugal, so did Wei Shihao. So we talk more. Xu Xin played in Spain, so he also can speak good Spanish and we can communicate well. In other situations, I speak English," said Ai Kesen. "Zhang Yuning is also a good player. We have a very close relationship. He played well in the league matches last season and I think we can link up well together in the national team. "We all had a vacation. Now is the time to have some quality training. Now, we are all in good physical shape, and we will reach peak condition in 10 days." Whether the squad can translate that into results to punch a ticket to the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar remains doubtful. Team China, which is due to resume its campaign against the Maldives on March 25, is second in Group A, ahead of the third-place Philippines on goal difference. So, even advancing to the second phase as one of the four best second-place finishers is a tough task. The Maldives qualifier will be Li's first official match in charge since taking over the squad in January 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the international fixture calendar. "If you ask me what challenges we are facing, I could spend a whole day speaking about them," said Li. "But this is our reality. I told the players that no matter how tough it is, we should give our utmost on the pitch. "Many players can't attend the training camp for various reasons-Zhang Linpeng, for example, is recovering from surgery. We probably need 30 to 33 players and we'll choose the best out of them. "In terms of other naturalized players, Fernando has returned to China but is still in quarantine. Jiang Guangtai (aka Tyias Browning) remains in Dubai, while Li Ke is in the UK. I hope they can return to China as soon as possible and stay in good health."