China aims to slay dragons

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From left: Wales' Gareth Bale, Uruguay duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, and China hotshot Wu Lei are some of the big stars expected to light up the second edition of the China Cup International Football Championship, which opens on Thursday in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

China's national team faces a stern test of its credentials when it faces Gareth Bale's Wales in Thursday's opening match of the China Cup International Football Championship in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Real Madrid superstar Bale strikes fear in any opponent, so stopping the marauding Welsh wizard will be key to China's chances of overcoming the Dragons and reaching Monday's final of the fourteam, FIFA-sanctioned tournament.

After failing to qualify for this summer's World Cup finals, China has now turned its attentions to preparing for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.

Thirteen players from Chinese Super League champion Guangzhou Evergrande and this year's early CSL pacesetter Shanghai SIPG make up the bulk of Marcello Lippi's 27-man squad, which includes such familiar faces as SIPG's Wu Lei, Yu Dabao of Beijing Guo'an and Evergrande's Gao Lin.

China will look to SIPG's Wu to breach the Welsh defense, with the 26-year-old starting the CSL season in prolific form - firing four goals, including a 12-minute hat-trick, against Guangzhou R&F last Sunday to take his tally to seven in just three matches.

Much has been made of the CSL's new under-23 player quotas this season, and Lippi has selected four players in that age bracket - Evergrande's Deng Hanwen, Liu Yiming of Tianjin Quanjian, Guo'an's Wei Shihao and He Chao of Changchun Yatai.

The only big surprise in Lippi's lineup is the absence of 38-year-old captain Zheng Zhi, who, according to Tencent Sports, is being rested with next year's Asian Cup in mind.

Giggs confident

With Bale in tow, new Wales manager Ryan Giggs is confident of getting his tenure off to a flying start.

Bale, 28, has struggled for game time at Madrid this season but came off the bench to hit the net in a 6-3 league victory over Girona on Sunday.

With teams guaranteed two games in Nanning (the semifinal losers will play a third-place playoff, also on Monday), Giggs is planning to use Bale in both matches.

"All players that go out are preparing to play both games," the former Manchester United great said last week.

"But you have to be sensible as well. If players get a knock when they are on tour and we feel it's better they go back, they will go back early. There are players for who this is an ideal trip for them to get games and minutes under their belt-and it is for Gareth."

Giggs, though, is without influential Arsenal playmaker Aaron Ramsey, who requires "a small procedure" to heal a nagging injury, and West Bromwich Albion striker Hal Robson-Kanu. And one of the heroes of the Dragons' run to the Euro 2016 semifinals, Reading midfielder Dave Edwards, has announced his international retirement.

Crystal Palace goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, Everton's Ashley Williams, Tottenham's Ben Davies, Stoke's Joe Allen, Swansea's Andy King and Liverpool duo Ben Woodburn and Harry Wilson (on loan at Championship side Hull) make up Giggs' English Premier League contingent.

Centerback Williams, 33, retains the Welsh captaincy despite his indifferent form for Everton.

"There's no reason to change," said Giggs of Williams. "He's getting to the end of his career so it's something will have to look at in the future, but he's been a brilliant captain on and off the pitch."

Uruguay faves

On Friday, Uruguay and the Czech Republic square off in the second semifinal.

Uruguay, the only one of the four teams that will play at the World Cup in Russia, must be considered the favorite to lift the China Cup.

Coach Oscar Tabarez is blessed with the superstar firepower of Barcelona's Luis Suarez and Paris Saint-Germain's Edinson Cavani in attack, while the Serie A class of Sampdoria's Lucas Torreira and Gaston Ramirez, Matias Vecino (Inter Milan) and Rodrigo Betancur (Juventus) anchors his midfield.

Tabarez is likely to give some lesser lights a chance to win recognition ahead of settling his World Cup roster.

"We don't rule out any player," Tabarez said on Saturday.

"I have to take players to China who I have a chance of seeing. Those players are a priority, ahead of those who I already know."

The Czech Republic, meanwhile, has been struggling in recent years. The Czechs finished third behind Germany and Northern Ireland in 2018 World Cup qualifying Group C, the country's third straight failure to reach the finals.

Coach Karel Jarolim has decided against experimenting with any rookies in China, while Matej Vydra is perhaps the Czechs' most potent attacking threat, having bagged 17 goals for promotion-chasing Derby County in England's Championship this season.

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