In the wake of China’s fortuitous 2-2 draw with South Korea, there remains a temptation to reduce the East Asian Cup to a half-baked calendar stuffing activity, some semi-competitive spectacle as much about facilitating off-field tete-a-tete meetings as the game of football itself.
Lippi, however, knows he cannot afford to belittle the opportunity presented him in Japan. The Italian’s task of ensuring his legacy surpasses the coterie of failed foreign managers begins in earnest over the coming ten days. Simply put, irrespective of how long he stays, he must leave the side in better health than he inherited it.
After his appointment in late 2016, Lippi approached World Cup Qualifying with stranglehold conservatism and a loyalty to an aging group of players. Consequently, the veteran coach arrives on the other side knowing as little about the next generation of Chinese footballers as they do about the pressures of international football and his own style of play.
There was an unacknowledged paradox in how state media and Lippi reacted to setbacks during the crawl toward Russia 2018. The lukewarm draw to Qatar, the experience of playing amid the din of 90,000 hostile Iranian fans, the pain of conceding a critical late goal to Syria were explained as harsh but vital lessons for the development of the national team.
However, Zheng Zhi and co.’s influence and ever-presence around the first team is gradually waning. Unless such lessons somehow live on in the thread and fiber of the red and yellow shirt, they must be retaught to a largely separate group of players, and quickly. In this light, Lippi’s pragmatism begins to seem excessive.
The side sent out to face South Korea was roughly five years younger than the one that labored to a 2-1 win over Qatar back in May. It showed.
Though China succeed in exploiting weakness down both flanks, without the ball China appeared stiff and unable to cope with the movement of the opposition forward line, one missing South Korea’s high-caliber Europe-based players. But for the heroics of Yan Junling in goal, contest may well have been over by half time.
One of the hallmarks of Lippi’s side in qualifying was defensive organization and an ability to execute from set pieces. Success in these areas was eased by the advantage of being able to field half a dozen players already familiar with the methods from his time at Guangzhou Evergrande. It remains to be seen who among this hodgepodge group of players can adapt to both Lippi’s system and the singular demands of international football.
With this in mind, the current East Asian Cup present prime competitive opportunities for Lippi to determine the makeup of his team prior to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup. While the Chinese Football Association (CFA) will hope to organize useful friendlies in early summer 2018, China’s absence from Russia hampers development of the national team.
Lippi’s tenure is currently set to end after the competition in the United Arab Emirates and while Chinese football fans are hopeful the former World Cup winner will stay, the promise and malleability Lippi sees in this squad from this current tournament will likely weigh heavily on his decision.
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