By Richard Widdington
MOSCOW, June 13 (Xinhua) -- With the Chinese Super League (CSL) taking a month-long break, a number of faces particularly familiar to fans of China's domestic league will be making appearances at the World Cup Russia.
The number of foreign CSL players who are making an impact on their national teams speaks to the increasingly high standard of play in the league, and nowhere is this more true than in central midfield.
Here are three China-based midfielders whose on-field impact could be the difference between success and underperformance for their respective countries.
1. Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune, Argentina)
In another generation of Argentine footballers, one blessed with the high-octane midfielders around which Jorge Sampaoli built his reputation with the Chilean national team, Javier Mascherano would likely be following La Albiceleste beachside, cocktail in hand. Instead, the 34-year-old Hebei China Fortune star enters his fourth World Cup at the heart of Argentina's midfield.
Argentina spluttered its way through qualifying and the 2014 finalists have continued to underwhelm since Sampaoli's arrival in May last year. New systems have been tried in recent friendlies against Spain and Haiti, but the disjoint between midfield and attack remains. In the November friendly against Nigeria, a side Sampaoli will meet in the treacherous Group D, Argentina failed to control the tempo of the second half and conceded three goals on course to a 4-2 defeat. While knockout football is undeniably a different beast, the sense remains that Argentina are vulnerable to quick, direct football.
Attention inevitably falls to Lionel Messi when contemplating Argentina's capabilities in Russia, but given the side's defensive deficiencies, Mascherano's ability to shield the back line and distribute the ball intelligently could prove vitally important.
2. Axel Witsel (Tianjin Quanjian, Belgium)
Belgium boasts arguably the strongest all-round squad in the competition, with two high-quality players for each position. Consequently, there is no guarantee the combative yet elegant midfielder will start in Russia, though the signs are positive given Roberto Martinez selected him for recent friendlies against Egypt and Costa Rica.
Belgium's plethora of attacking talent means the former Wigan Athletic manager fields Kevin De Bruyne in a central midfield pair, a move that adds to the side's fluidity and creative outlets when in possession. However, against sides prone to playing counter-attack football, such as Group G opponents Panama and Tunisia, the tracking, fitness and positional awareness of the other central midfielder is fundamental if the defense is to be protected. Although Witsel occupies a slightly more advanced role for Tianjian Quanjian, his positional discipline and willingness to allow others creative freedom has played a key role in the northeasterners run to the quarterfinals of the AFC Champions League.
Witsel's reputation in Belgium was somewhat tarnished in 2009 by a horror tackle on an Anderlecht player, one that saw him branded a 'beast' and led to a swift transfer to Benfica. While many have long forgiven the China-based player, Witsel has the chance to forge an altogether new reputation this summer by allowing De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and company to weave their magic.
3. Renato Augusto (Beijing Guoan, Brazil)
Perhaps lesser known than the aforementioned midfielders, Renato Augusto's European career at Bayer Leverkusen was anticlimactic and hampered by injury. But the Brazilian's prominence for Beijing Guoan since arriving in 2016 is a testament to the fact players do not necessarily sacrifice an international career by moving to the Chinese Super League.
Although Brazil's sparkling front three draws the plaudits, the Beijing favorite sits deep and was instrumental in dictating the play during the Selecao's gold medal performance at the Rio Olympics. Having broken into the team under Dunga, the much-derided previous coach, Augusto has continued to be important for new manager Tite, though his place has come under threat from Paulinho in recent friendlies.
Augusto had a recent injury scare and could see limited playing time in Group E, particularly since Brazil's opponents are likely to sit deep and frustrate one of the tournament favorites. What's more, defensive opponents may encourage Tite to field an additional creative player. However, against more expansive teams, the midfielder could prove crucial and one lesson drawn from Croatia's impressive high-block pressing in last week's friendly, one that stunned and nullified Brazil in the first half, is the need for Augusto's cool-headed passing.