LONDON - China captain Zheng Zhi faces a grueling race against time to help Charlton's promotion challenge after playing for his country in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
|Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown (C) poses for photographers with Chinese soccer players Dong Fangzhuo (L) of Manchester United and Zheng Zhi of Charlton Athletic, during a reception with members of the British Chinese community at 10 Downing Street, London January 14, 2008. [Xinhua]
Zheng will link up with the China squad for their World Cup match against Iraq in Dubai on February 6, but Charlton hope he can be available for their equally vital Championship fixture against Crystal Palace on February 8.
The 27-year-old is a key member of Alan Pardew's Charlton team and the manager is trying to ensure his midfield star gets back to England to play at the Valley 48 hours later.
That will entail a draining flight from the Middle East with little time to recover but Pardew believes Zheng is ready to make the sacrifice.
"We lose him prior to Palace for an international game, so he's touch-and-go for the Palace game. But it comes with the territory with players of his quality that you are going to have one or two international problems," Pardew said.
"We're going to go to every length we can so that ZiZi can represent China and be available for us as well."
Zheng scored twice in Saturday's win over Blackpool to take his Charlton goal tally for the season to nine and he has become a popular figure at the south London club.
Pardew admits he is not surprised how well Zheng has fit in on the pitch and in the dressing room.
"He's a very balanced character and a nice guy. We're starting to see a little bit of humor come out of him now he's getting more comfortable with the language, and he's a fine ambassador for Chinese football," Pardew said.
"He has a full-time interpreter, because English is a very difficult language - it's like one of us learning Mandarin. There are lots of different subtleties, but he's doing well and is a popular lad."
The former Shandong Luneng player is one of China's sporting icons and met British Prime Minster Gordon Brown at 10 Downing Street on Monday along with leading figures of the Chinese community in London.
Zheng's reputation in China has impressed his teammates, but it hasn't stopped them ribbing him in training.
"He's got a great reputation in his homeland. He's their David Beckham if you like. He's a superstar in China," Charlton midfielder Matt Holland said.