SHANGHAI (AFP) – China coach Marcello Lippi has put his players through a tough month of training ahead of the Asian Cup, but the decorated Italian will need to inspire something special if his ageing side are to be serious contenders.
Lippi looks set to leave the well-paid post when his contract expires after the tournament in the United Arab Emirates, which begins tomorrow, and at the age of 70 the end of his coaching career is in sight.
He is aiming to add an Asian Cup to a long managerial CV that includes the 2006 World Cup as well as a Champions League medal and five Italian league titles with Juventus.
Lippi was also a Chinese Super League winner three times in a row with Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2014. But his two years in charge of the national side have been underwhelming.
The Chinese government is throwing money at youth football but the squad at Lippi’s disposal is limited and one of the oldest at the tournament.
Their build-up to the UAE has been complicated by injuries to back-up goalkeepers, while cold and flu have crept into the squad.
China have won only one of their previous seven games, and scoring goals has been a particular problem during Lippi’s stuttering reign, managing on average barely a goal a game.
Lippi drove his players hard to ramp up their fitness while at a closed camp on the wet and humid southern island of Hainan, where the bulk of China’s Asian Cup preparations took place.
“I am very satisfied with the performance of the players in training, (but) injuries and sickness did occur,” Lippi, reportedly one of the best-paid coaches in football, said.
The Italian was buoyed however by being able to get the squad together at the start of December, giving him ample time to get his message across.
“This is truly the first time that we have enough time for better preparation tactically and physically,” added the Italian, who must find a way to get Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei, last season’s CSL top-scorer, banging in goals for his country.
Expectations back home are as low as ever – Chinese football fans have long been exasperated by their team – though Lippi’s men ought to have enough to squeeze out of Group C, most likely behind South Korea.
Kyrgyzstan and the Philippines are the other countries in the group and failure to qualify for the knock-out rounds would trigger another bout of hand-wringing.
It says much about the scarcity of Lippi’s options that Zheng Zhi, at age 38, remains a figurehead.
This will be Zheng’s fifth and surely last Asian Cup and the midfielder, formerly of Charlton Athletic when they were in the English Premier League, wants to go out with a bang.
“I thought the previous Asian Cup would have been my last and I didn’t expect that I can still take part again four years later,” said the Guangzhou Evergrande stalwart.
“I’m very happy and honoured, and will cherish the chance.”
China, who have never won the Asian Cup, will begin their tournament on Monday against Kyrgyzstan.