Growing injury list leaves Li's men with mountain to climb

2021-03-24 12:06:15

But head coach can't fault players' dedication ahead of World Cup mission If Team China's World Cup qualification task wasn't daunting enough, injuries to key players are making head coach Li Tie's job even more difficult.   Team China head coach Li Tie keeps a watchful eye on his players during a training session in Shanghai on Sunday. [Photo/Xinhua] On Sunday, a 28-man squad kicked off a two-week training camp in Shanghai. However, absent from the group were two naturalized players, England-born defender Jiang Guangtai (aka Tyias Browning) and Brazil-born attacker Fernando, along with midfielder Hao Junmin, adding to an injury list that already included experienced defender Zhang Linpeng and the versatile Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris). "It's a pity that many of our players are struggling with injuries now, including naturalized player Jiang Guangtai. And defender Zhang Linpeng still needs a long time to recover from his (ankle) surgery," the 43-year-old Li told media on Sunday. "And Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris), after he returned to China, is also recovering from injuries. That's why we didn't involve him in the training camp. Fernando was injured during a warm-up match before, and we are still waiting for his medical report. Provisionally, we've been told that he needs two to three weeks to recover. "But injuries are a part of soccer. We don't know who will be ready and in full health in May. So we need to let all of our players be ready." With four games left to play in Asian zone Group A qualifying, China is eight points adrift of leader Syria and only leads third-place Philippines on goal difference. China will face the Maldives and Guam in May before confronting stronger rivals the Philippines and Syria. The eight group winners and four best second-place finishers will enter the next phase of qualifying. Team China will at least enjoy home advantage after the Chinese Football Association announced earlier this month that all Group A matches will be staged in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, from May 31 to June 15. "Thanks to China's great efforts in controlling the pandemic, we are able to invite four other national teams to compete in our nation. It's safe to play here and it's a good choice," CFA president Chen Xuyuan told CCTV on Friday. "The World Cup qualifiers are a test for the CFA. I believe our national squad has the ability to play well in the coming qualifiers, as long as we make good preparations and adjust our mentality." The pandemic has ensured that the qualifiers will be the first time head coach Li takes charge of an official match since he was handed the reins in early 2020. The former Everton and Team China player will need to prove himself with victories in Suzhou if he hopes to extend his stay in the job, having only been appointed on a short-term contract. Li's predecessor, Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi, resigned after Team China's 2-1 qualifying defeat to Syria in Dubai back in 2019. Li views the Shanghai training camp as vital in getting his players up to speed. "We will have two weeks of training this time and we have arranged two warm-up matches against the Chinese Super League squads of Henan Songshan Longmen (formerly known as Henan Jianye) and Shandong Taishan (formerly Shandong Luneng)," said coach Li. "We want to let the players feel the same pace as the coming qualifiers, and the players need to learn to cooperate with each other through the warm-up matches." Brazil-born strikers Ai Kesen, aka Elkeson, and Alan are the only two naturalized stars at the training camp. Ai Kesen enjoyed a reasonably fruitful start to his Team China career, finding the net three times, albeit against weak opposition, in qualifiers in 2019. Fans are expecting big things from his Guangzhou FC teammate, Alan, who has consistently shone as a potent attacking threat in the CSL. Coach Li, however, insists his players' collective will to win counts for more than individual ability. "For over a year, I've felt that all the national team players are cherishing their chance to play for Team China. They've really tried so hard," he said. "For example, Alan's kid was sick before he came to the training camp. He was anxious and worried, and his family wanted him to return to Brazil for the kid's sake. That was a serious situation, and luckily now his kid is a lot better. "In the end, Alan still took the first available flight to Shanghai. He told me he wanted to have a good performance in the national squad. I could see the tears in his eyes and I know he's still worried about his family. All we can do is to communicate with certain departments and hope to take his family from Brazil to China to accompany him."