Can Lippi lift sink­ing China?

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS -

ITALIAN mas­ter-coach Mar­cello Lippi is fac­ing one of his tough­est as­sign­ments as he at­tempts what some fans think is im­pos­si­ble: put­ting un­der­achiev­ers China on the path to great­ness. Start­ing with Tues­day’s World Cup qual­i­fier against Qatar, the sil­ver-haired Lippi will set out to jus­tify his hefty salary as China’s new boss and win over a scep­ti­cal pub­lic. Lippi, 68, won the World Cup with Italy and he is the only coach to lift both the Euro­pean and Asian Cham­pi­ons League tro­phies, with Ju­ven­tus and China’s Guangzhou Ever­grande. But he faces an en­tirely dif­fer­ent challenge as coach of China, whose dis­mal per­for­mances have seen them lam­basted by their own long­suf­fer­ing fans.

While China’s well-heeled clubs, no­tably Ever­grande, have spent their way to suc­cess, ‘Team Dragon’ re­main mired at 84th in the FIFA rank­ings, below Is­rael, Cu­ra­cao and Libya.

Such is fans’ dis­il­lu­sion­ment that one widely cir­cu­lated com­ment on so­cial me­dia com­pared Lippi’s ar­rival to a ty­coon hir­ing “a Har­vard grad­u­ate to tu­tor his re­tarded son”.

Lippi’s ap­point­ment – at a reported US$20 mil­lion (RM85.2m) a year – is the lat­est gam­bit by the Chi­nese FA, un­der pres­sure from Pres­i­dent Ji Xin­ping to craft an era of suc­cess.

The cigar-lov­ing, medal­lion-sport­ing Lippi led Italy to the 2006 World Cup ti­tle, four years after China made their sole ap­pear­ance at the tour­na­ment in 2002, when they failed to win a point or even score a goal.

But while Lippi had un­doubted tal­ent at his dis­posal at Italy, Ju­ven­tus and even deep-pock­eted Ever­grande, he can­not buy in fresh play­ers to re­vi­talise China’s squad.

He re­places Gao Hongbo, who re­signed in Oc­to­ber after two de­feats in five days to war-torn Syria and Uzbek­istan left the world’s most pop­u­lous na­tion bot­tom of Group A in World Cup qual­i­fy­ing, with just one point from four games.

With six games left and only the top two of six teams qual­i­fy­ing au­to­mat­i­cally for Rus­sia 2018, the odds are stacked against China. De­feat in Kun­ming to Qatar will re­duce their al­ready slim hopes to al­most zero.

There are rea­sons for op­ti­mism, for next week at least. China beat fel­low strug­glers Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts, in the pre­vi­ous qual­i­fy­ing round in March.

And Kun­ming, in China’s south-west, has an al­ti­tude of 1,900 me­tres (6,234 feet) above sea level. With China spend­ing an 11-day train­ing camp in the city, home ad­van­tage could be cru­cial. – AFP

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