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World Cup
 By Ian Holyman

Roberto Martinez backs Axel Witsel for Belgium despite Chinese league move

Axel Witsel has played in all four of Belgium's 2018 World Cup qualifying matches to date.

Roberto Martinez believes Axel Witsel can remain a key part of his Belgium side despite seemingly sacrificing his international career by moving to China.

Witsel joined Tianjin Quanjian in a €20 million move from Zenit St Petersburg in January, and will earn a reported €18m annually over the three years of his contract.

Though he acknowledged his massive payday was key to him making the switch and reportedly rejecting overtures from Juventus in the process, Witsel insisted he still harboured ambitions of featuring for his country.

Martinez has named Witsel in his starting lineup for all four  2018 World Cup qualifiers to date.

Martinez is currently planning for this month's Group H encounter with Greece, the nation currently two points adrift of Belgium at the top of the section.

And the former Everton and Wigan Athletic coach told Humo he sees no reason the former Benfica midfielder, 28, cannot continue to feature.

"Money plays a role in every job, particularly in football. That will certainly have been an important factor in Axel's decision, but you have to look beyond that: he's now a very important player in a new project," said Martinez, who took over from Marc Wilmots last summer.

"He's going to want to repay the faith shown in him by his bosses. Time will tell, but I'm confident Axel will maintain his thirst for victory to remain an important player for Belgium. At Zenit, in Russia, he never dropped his level, so I don't see a problem."

Ian is ESPN's French football correspondent. Twitter: @ian_holyman


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