Under-fire Team China coach Li Tie has denied his squad selection for next month’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers shows favoritism toward players of his former employer, Wuhan Zall.

Li has faced a backlash from fans and pundits alike after four uncapped, low-profile Wuhan players-Li Hang, Dong Chunyu, Ming Tian and Liu Yun-were included in his 26-man squad at the expense of Guangzhou Evergrande hotshot Wei Shihao and naturalized Beijing Guo’an defender Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris).

Wei’s omission for the games against the Maldives and Guam particularly puzzled Li’s critics after the 24-year-old, who has 14 caps for his country, netted 11 times last term to finish as the Chinese Super League’s top domestic scorer.

Li, though, who was officially installed as Marcello Lippi’s successor in January, on Wednesday took to social media to defend his selection and assure fans of his total commitment to his new role.

“This photo marked the start of a significant moment of my professional career,” read a message on Li’s Weibo account that was accompanied by a picture of his first media conference as Team China coach on Jan 5. “From that day, I quit all my positions at Wuhan Zall in order to totally focus on coaching the national team.”

Amid the controversy, Li has also received the backing of some observers, who argue that the matches against the Group A minnows, on March 26 and 31, provide a perfect opportunity to try out new players. China scored a combined 12 goals against the Maldives (5-0) and Guam (7-0) last year, and should collect six more points without too much fuss in March.

Wei’s omission is also not so risky considering that Team China’s biggest stars-La Liga striker Wu Lei and Brazil-born forward Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson)-have retained their places in the squad.

Li pushed his players to their limits during a tough winter training camp in Guangzhou last month before the Spring Festival, and the national team will reassemble this weekend before flying to Dubai in early March for a 10-day training camp.

Due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the matches have been moved from China to Thailand, with the squad’s training schedule also disrupted.

Beijing Youth Daily reported that Thailand has stipulated that all members of Team China enter and leave the country together, while no individual will be allowed to travel alone as a precaution. The games will be staged behind closed doors, with no journalists or spectators present.

The Chinese squad will be monitored closely by a local health department, even at its hotel, meaning proper training or warmup matches against local teams will be impossible.

Dubai was deemed an ideal choice for preparations, given the players are familiar with the city as they have been training and competing there frequently since Italian Lippi was coach.

A number of CSL teams are also training there due to the virus-related postponement of the start of the new CSL season.

Beijing Youth Daily reported that coach Li has planned two warm-up matches in Dubai, possibly involving reigning CSL champion Evergrande and 2018 champion Shanghai SIPG.

Striker Wu Lei is set to miss the Dubai training camp due to his commitments with relegation-battling Espanyol.

The Barcelona-based club was due to face England’s Wolverhampton Wanderers in the second leg of their Europa League last-32 tie on Thursday night (Friday morning Beijing time), and on Sunday hosts Atletico Madrid in La Liga.

Li will, therefore, pay Wu a special visit in Spain this weekend before heading to Dubai.

“I will watch the Real Madrid match against Manchester City match (City won 2-1), which will be a good chance for me to learn,” said Li on Thursday. “The next day I’ll go to Barcelona to watch Espanyol’s matches on Friday and Sunday. I hope Wu Lei can have great performances.

“The next Monday, I will fly to Dubai to meet all the national team players. The next phase of training and battle has started. Hope all the fans can support us.”

With four more first-round qualifiers to play, China is eight points adrift of Group A leader Syria and only leads third-place Philippines on goal difference. The eight group winners and four best second-place finishers will enter a second phase of Asian qualifying.

After March’s games, China is scheduled to end its campaign with crunch games against the Philippines and Syria in June, when Li is expected to pick his strongest available squad.

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