Marcello Lippi dishes out instructions to Team China players in Guangzhou last week. (Photo/Xinhua)
Coach confident in revamped young squad ahead of World Cup qualification opener against Maldives
After years of disappointment, the pressure is on for Marcello Lippi to finally deliver some cheer for long-suffering Team China fans.
Lippi's squad will open its 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign in the Maldives on Tuesday when only a convincing win against the 152nd-ranked side will be considered acceptable.
The Italian coach failed to steer China to last year's World Cup finals in Russia, but now a younger squad, bolstered by the addition of naturalized duo Elkeson and Nico Yennaris, has given the 71-year-old renewed caused for optimism.
"I'm happy with all the passion and respect that Chinese fans have shown me, which motivated me and made me passionate," said Lippi at the team's training camp in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, last week. "I've been in the soccer business for over 40 years, so I'm not pressured.
"The first game is to play against the Maldives. Then we have to face Guam and the Philippines. Syria will be our final opponent of the year. We are familiar with the strength and character of the Syrian team. But they have some changes compared with the last time we fought. We should always focus on the next game and the next rival."
Lippi told Beijing Youth Daily he is ready to give youth a chance as he dispenses with some of the squad's veterans.
"I will build a younger and stronger Chinese team of about 30 players," said Lippi. "I hope in the next two years, I can take a more competitive Team China to fight and try to qualify for the World Cup. Some veterans have contributed so much to the national team, but they will not be called up now.
"However, there's one exception－the captain, Zheng Zhi. He's a role model who is willing to help me build a new system and serve the team. He's already 39 years old, but he's no doubt still a core player who can help the team."
At January's Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates, Lippi was in charge of the oldest squad (average age of 30.2 years) at the tournament－and it showed as China crashed out to Iran in the quarterfinals.
Lippi reportedly became furious in the dressing room after that crushing 3-0 defeat and stepped down from the job afterwards, ending a two-year stint.
However, the Italian, who led his native country to World Cup glory in 2006, returned in May after caretaker boss Fabio Cannavaro decided to focus on his club commitments as head coach of Guangzhou Evergrande.
"Now we have younger players, and this is the right trajectory," said Lippi. "Compared with seven years ago when I came to China for the first time, more young players can play for the national team and some even can become core players. Our youth training system has also improved and the young players are growing. This is a very good sign."
Arguably the jewel in Lippi's young roster is striker Wu Lei, who belatedly joined up with the squad due his club duty with Espanyol in Spain.
"The World Cup has always been our dream, and we had the chance to reach the last World Cup," said Wu. "All these experiences are helpful for us, and we're confident of achieving the dream."