By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Slumped in his pitch-side seat at Abu Dhabi's Mohamed bin Zayed Stadium, Marcello Lippi carried the air of a man defeated long before the final whistle blew on China's challenge for January's Asian Cup.
A second defensive collapse in quick succession meant Lippi's team trailed by two goals inside the opening 31 minutes of their quarter-final meeting with Iran and, as China eventually limped out on the end of a 3-0 loss, the veteran Italian was crestfallen.
A truncated press conference - at which he refused to take questions - was followed by a swift exit as China's Lippi era ended in despondency.
And yet, four months after that abject defeat, the former Italy coach has been lured back to the dugout for another attempt at securing an elusive World Cup berth for China, the nation's first since their one and only appearance at the finals in 2002.
Lippi knows better than anyone the issues he will face when he attempts, once more, to make the World Cup dreams of the world's most populous nation come true.
The squad Lippi selected for the Asian Cup finals had the oldest average age at the tournament as the Italian leaned heavily on a core of veteran players he had previously worked with during his two-and-a-half year stint at Guangzhou Evergrande.
And while those players were successful at club level - winning the Asian Champions League under Lippi in 2013 and again under Luiz Felipe Scolari two years later - all are in or approaching their 30s and in need of replacing.
"This is a problem and can be a problem for China in the next few years because at the moment these players are 32, 33 years old and there aren't too many younger players," Lippi said during the Asian Cup.
That is now an issue the 71-year-old will have to address, starting with his first game in charge against the Philippines in a friendly in Guangzhou on June 7 ahead of qualifying for the World Cup, which starts in September.
Talismanic players such as Zheng Zhi and Gao Lin will be expected to make way, with more of the burden falling on the slight shoulders of Espanyol striker Wu Lei.
Wu, who was the Chinese Super League's top scorer last year before moving from Shanghai SIPG to Spain, is 27-year-old and at his peak, but is a lone light in a landscape lacking quality in depth.
As a result, naturalisation of players born overseas with Chinese heritage - something Lippi has long favoured - has started to happen, with former Arsenal and Brentford midfielder Nico Yennaris among those gaining citizenship in an attempt to bolster the country's playing pool.
But the task of qualifying for 2022 will be a monumental one, made more difficult by FIFA's decision to keep the 2022 event as a 32-team tournament thereby further limiting China's chances.
Lippi will hope his return will be greeted by a similar outcome that met his initial arrival as China coach.
With their World Cup hopes floundering under Gao Hongbo, Lippi earned the country just their second-ever win over great rivals South Korea before taking the team to the final round of qualifying matches with a slim chance of a place in Russia.
And while they ultimately fell short, the world Cup-winning coach will have confidence in his own competitive record as he prepares to start again.
(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)