By Michael Church
HONGKONG (Reuters) – When Marcello Lippi took charge of China’s troubled national team a little over two years ago, hopes were high the World Cup-winning Italian could kick-start a long-overdue return to the upper tier of Asian football for the world’s most populous nation.
But, as the septuagenarian’s tenure draws to a close at January’s Asian Cup finals in the United Arab Emirates, the question is whether Lippi has made much of a difference at all.
While the former Juventus coach oversaw an upturn in fortunes in the early days of his reign, Lippi’s team go into their meetings with South Korea, the Philippines and Kyrgyzstan in the group phase of the 24-nation tournament with an indifferent run of form.
China have managed just three wins in nine official games in 2018, with thrashings at the hands of Wales and Czech Republic in the China Cup in March heaping pressure on the veteran Italian manager.
His side have struggled to score goals, too, netting just seven times in those nine matches and going goalless in consecutive meetings with Qatar, Bahrain and India in September and October.
At this point in Lippi’s tenure the Chinese were hoping to be closer to their goal of reestablishing themselves among Asia’s elite. Instead, they go to the Asian Cup with low expectations and even lower morale.
A 2-1 loss in a closed door meeting with Iraq on Christmas Eve left Lippi furious and Chinese fans wondering if the 2010 World Cup winner can deliver a decent sequence of results in the UAE before his expected post-tournament retirement.
“The performance wasn’t as good as we had hoped,” experienced defender Feng Xiaoteng told Chinese media the day after the game in Qatar’s Aspire Academy.
“There were some highlights for the fans, but not many. There weren’t many opportunities. It was bad and the head coach is very angry today.”
Lippi’s continued reliance on an ageing group of players at the core of the squad from his old club Guangzhou Evergrande could backfire, with injuries already affecting some before the tournament begins.
Goalkeeper Zeng Cheng was left out of the squad at the last minute due to injury while regular left back Li Xuepeng returned to China from the training camp in Doha as a result of an Achilles issue that leaves Lippi shorthanded at the back.
Captain Zheng Zhi, meanwhile, remains integral to the team despite his advancing years – he turned 38 in August – while key central defender Feng is one of many on the wrong side of 30.
The coach has, however, started to lean more on the talents of the Shanghai SIPG side that won the Chinese Super League title for the first time in 2018, with Yan Junling featuring in goal and She Ki likely to partner Feng in central defence.
But it is the goal scoring of Wu Lei that Lippi must harness if he is to give the Chinese the chance to win games.
Wu finished SIPG’s 2018 title-winning campaign as the Chinese Super League’s top scorer, the first time a local player has done so since Li Jinyu won the Golden Boot in 2007, but the 27-year-old has rarely fired for China.
Should he take his SIPG form into the Asian Cup, Lippi’s team will at least have a chance of making an impact but, without his goals and with an old squad, China look as far off the pace as they did before the Italian’s arrival.
(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)