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Inside FutbolInside Futbol


Interview: Marcello Lippi On AFC Champions League, China, and Arsenal and Man Utd

After a 2-2 draw in South Korea against FC Seoul in the first game of the 2013 Asian Champions League final, Guangzhou Evergrande are close to winning the first international trophy in their history. Given their perfect home run in the competition, with five wins, one draw and no goal conceded in six games, the Chinese side have now become firm favourites to lift the trophy. If this happens, Guangzhou’s coach Marcello Lippi would become the first manager to have won the Champions League in both Europe and Asia; Uruguayan Jorge Fossati is currently the only “trans-continental” champion coach, having won the Copa Libertadores in 2008 with LDU Quito and the Asian Champions League in 2011 with Al Sadd.

“I am very satisfied to have signed for Guangzhou Evergrande”, Lippi told Inside Futbol. “In a year and a half we have won two national titles, one Chinese Cup, and now we are currently fighting for the Asian Champions League. This is my reply to those who said I went to China only for the money.”

The experienced Italian coach needed to put his career back on track after a disappointing 2010 World Cup in South Africa with Italy. The team, that in 2006 Lippi led to unpredictable world success, suffered a painful exit in the group stage. However, that is now all water under the bridge for Lippi, who is focused on Guangzhou. “This can be a really special season because we have grown tactically and we have become mentally stronger”, he explained. “Our Champions League campaign has been successful so far; we only lost one game in the group stage, against Urawa Red Diamonds, one of the strongest contenders we have ever met.”


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Guangzhou’s march to the final was impressive, with six wins in a row between the round of 16 and the semi-finals. The Chinese side defeated the Central Coast Mariners, Lekhwiya and Kashiwa Reysol, scoring 19 goals and conceding only three. What are the secrets behind such an impressive machine? “We have become more confident”, says Lippi. “In my opinion, the turning point was the quarter-final return match in the 2012 Asian Champions League [Guangzhou were the first Chinese side to reach the quarter-finals since 2006, ed.] against Al Itthiad. We were defeated 4-2 in Jeddah, but at home we dominated them. Unfortunately we weren’t lucky, we hit the post twice and conceded a goal with 12 minutes to go. At the end critics praised the team’s mentality and approach to the game. That was the moment in which my players became aware they could be competitive against everybody.”

Only one Chinese club have won the Asian Champions League so far – Liaoning in 1990. Now Lippi is ready to write history again. “We are competitive at the top level in Asia and we don’t have any inferiority complex against Japanese or South Korean teams anymore. Against FC Seoul we played a good game, missed some good opportunities and conceded a goal for 2-2 in the last minutes. It was quite a balanced match between two teams that play at the same high level because they are full of excellent players. We have Muriqui, the current Champions League top scorer, and Elkeson, while the South Koreans have [Dejan] Damjanovic, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-style striker with good technique and great ability to defend the ball with his body.”


The second leg of the final will take place on Saturday 9th November at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Stadium. “We have to forget all the statistics and simply play at our best”, Lippi pointed out, in confident mood. “Lifting the cup would make me feel almost twenty years younger, as it was in 1996 that my Juventus defeated Ajax on penalties in the Champions League final. Here I have the same feeling. The passion of the players and the toughness of the competition is the same, even if in the European Champions League there is more quality, of course.”

Looking over at Europe’s showpiece competition, Lippi feels that Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich are a step above the other contenders to the crown. “Pep Guardiola has the magic touch. You can see how great and smart he is by looking at the approach he has had with Bayern. He isn’t trying to create a new Barcelona, but he is adapting his football philosophy to the players he had found there. Among the English teams, Arsenal is the one I like the most. They are stronger than in past seasons and could go further in the competition.” And Manchester United, where Sir Alex Ferguson has stood down to be replaced by David Moyes and a less than smooth start? “They are living a period of transition”, Lippi explained. “David Moyes is not the problem, because it wouldn’t have been easy for anyone to replace an icon like Ferguson.”

Back in the here and now, in China, will Guangzhou’s rise help football in the country? Lippi has no doubt it will. “I am confident about it”, he said. “We are showing the way. I’ll give you an example: The biggest problem is that Chinese football does not have a rich long-term culture and this means that the number of children who have contact with football is less than elsewhere. Our chairman Xu Jiayin has set up a very big football school to train youngsters to play football.” And for Lippi, it is not throwing money at the problem which is the answer, but instead more desire from the clubs to make a difference, following the Guangzhou model. “It is not only a question of money, because you don’t have to do too much. The clubs simply have to build a few pitches and then allow some of the former players to be coaches. Spending money only to buy a few big name players will not solve the problems of Chinese football. I think Guangzhou have shown that.”

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