Marcello Lippi on a mission to boost China’s future, starting with clash against South Korea
The Italian says his team still need work to reach the standards of Asia’s top teams but the future is bright
Marcello Lippi takes an inexperienced China squad into the opening East Asian Championship soccer fixture against South Korea on Saturday afternoon with one eye firmly on the future and one peering back at the past.
Tokyo’s Ajinomoto Stadium is where, almost eight years ago, China registered their first-ever win over the 10-time World Cup qualifiers, and the two nations face off at the same stadium with the head-to-head record having shifted little in China’s favour since.
Lippi became only the second China coach – Gao Hongbo was in charge for the win in early 2010 – to record a win over the Koreans when, in March this year, his side secured a morale-boosting 1-0 victory that briefly reignited the country’s World Cup qualification hopes.
Those faintly flickering embers were eventually extinguished in September as China missed out on a place at yet another World Cup, while the Koreans booked their place in a ninth straight finals.
It is that record of continual qualification, even through periods of relative mediocrity such as the Koreans have endured over the last 18 months, that leaves Lippi staring somewhat enviously at Shin Tae-yong, his Korean counterpart.
“Japan and South Korea are both top Asian teams,” said Lippi of the nations he most hopes China can one day emulate.
“We have made some improvements but there is still a gap between us and the first-class teams in Asia. I’m not looking for excuses, just telling the truth. I have a great appreciation of the quality of football in Japan and Korea.
“This time I have brought six under-23 players with us, so we have a young team here. Everything we experience here will help us progress, both tactically and in terms of self-confidence.”
Veterans Zheng Zhi, Gao Lin, Feng Xiaoting and Wu Lei have all been left at home to recover from demanding seasons for their respective club sides, leaving Lippi to field a team who feature a mixture of regular starters, fringe players and kids.
Beijing Guoan’s Yu Dabao will lead the side after an injury-hit season while Lippi will also lean on the experience of Tianjin Quanjian’s Zhao Xuri and midfielder Wu Xi, of Jiangsu Suning.
Shanghai SIPG defensive duo Fu Huan and He Guan are expected to feature at some point over the three games this week while many eyes will be on their 22-year-old uncapped clubmate Wei Shihao, who impressed in the latter stages of the Chinese Super League season.
“Our preparation has focused on enhancing our physical condition because lots of us were on holidays and needed to recover,” said Wu Xi. “The coach hasn’t given us any target apart from telling us to stick to our own style and try to win every game.”
The Koreans won the regional title the last time it was played in 2015, with China finishing in the runners-up spot, and Shin’s side boast a number of current and former Chinese Super League players who will know Lippi’s team well.
One of the most prominent will be captain Jang Hyun-soo, who left Guangzhou R&F in the summer to join FC Tokyo, in a Korean side missing all of their Europe-based players.
“Both China and Japan will be fielding line-ups based solely on their domestic-based players and it’s important for us to demonstrate the competitiveness of the Korean team,” Jang said. “Our goal is to win without conceding a goal.”