FIFA World Cup™-winning coach Marcello Lippi is arguably facing the most challenging task of his managerial career: guiding China PR to their second global appearance at Russia 2018. With just one point from four outings, Team Dragon are languishing at the bottom of Group A and face a must-win scenario in their next qualifier against Qatar on Tuesday if they are to keep their diminishing hopes alive.
In what proved a disappointing campaign thus far, the team's confidence seemed to evaporate with each of the past matches. Under former coach Gao Hongbo, China narrowly lost 3-2 to group favourites Korea Republic before holding Iran to a goalless draw at home. They then suffered an unexpected 1-0 blow against Syria, however, while a 2-0 loss against Uzbekistan left them bottom without a win. Lippi, familiar with the Chinese game during his three seasons coaching Guangzhou Evergrande, is focused on rebuilding.
“It is important to restore the team's confidence,” said the 68-year-old Italian, who took over only in October. "We will focus on first dealing with the Qataris and then Korea Republic. Our chief aim is World Cup qualification. I hope we can achieve a miracle. But even if we fail to make it, we should make sure that the team make good progress in the process and build for the future. Then we will switch our focus to the next Asian Cup.”
China have long been considered as one of Asia's perennial under-achievers when it comes to FIFA World Cup qualifying; the world's most-populous nation have failed to make it to Asia's final qualifying round for the past three World Cups. Supporters have found it difficult to understand why their players, despite twice winning the AFC Champions League and storming into the last eight in the last AFC Asian Cup, have disappointed in World Cup qualifying. For Lippi, though, his answer is to first enhance the players' pride of playing for the country.
“I don't know why the same players perform differently with club and country,” he asked. “While they impress in both the league and Asian campaign (the AFC Champions League) with their respective clubs, they under-perform on the international scene. Their performance with the national team is just 40 per cent as good as their displays with the clubs. They should be aware what responsibilities they shoulder once donning the national team jersey. It is the top honour for a player to play for their country.”
Team synergy is another area where the team needs to improve, according to the former Juventus manager. “There is no gap in class existing between us and the rivals,” he continued. “But we need to learn to battle as a unit. Our players should help each other on the pitch in difficult times and by doing so, we will feel strong against any opposition.
“Our players were not in peak form (in the past games) but they proved that they are by no means the underdogs,” he said. “(Despite the results), the past matches were no one-way traffic in the favour of the rivals. We produced chances of our own and the opponents were far from being dominant."
Belief in the winning team
Many coaches believe in not changing a winning squad and Lippi is no exception. Having successfully taken Guangzhou Evergrande to three consecutive league titles and an Asian championship, he maintains his trust with his former side by selecting as many as seven players from Guangzhou as he aims to forge a competitive side against Qatar in his first game in charge. Most notably, former AFC Player of the Year Zheng Zhi earns his return to the national team and is given back the captain's armband.
"There will be six to seven players from the same club (Guangzhou Evergrande), with whom we will decide the new line-up," Lippi explained when addressing the press. "These are the players who have spent years training and playing together so they have telegraphic understanding with each other. This is the key for us to play well against Qatar. Of course, I will use good players from other clubs to provide the fresh drive and thrust to the team."
Top on his non-Guangzhou players list is, of course, Shanghai SIPG striker Wu Lei who was recently named among the three-man nominees for this year's AFC Player of the Year award. Despite failing to find the back of the net in third round qualifying, he completed a brace as Lippi's new-look team comfortably won 5-0 against local Wuhan in a pre-match warm-up.
"Coach Lippi is always encouraging us to believe in ourselves," said Wu. "He tells us that we are not lacking in abilities but confidence. He urges us to feel strong. He says that we have yet to be written off. We won't give up as long as we have even a shimmer of hopes."