Though they might have slipped a little under the radar of the Europeans’ group stages, the second legs of Asian Champions League semi-finals have being played this week. They were played in the early hours of the European afternoon and, at first glance, you’d notice they involved teams from countries you might have expected.
South Korea provided Seoul FC, who faced Esteghlal FC from Iran. Kashiwa Reysol were representing Japan, and they were up against China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
That last match-up is the important one. Not just because they Guangzhou blew Kashiwa away (though they did – scoring four in an away leg is dastardly stuff even without doing the same at home) but because they have a particularly celebrated name on the bench.
Allenatore: Marcello Lippi.
On Tuesday evening, we were treated to the sight of an Italian coach in a foreign country growing more and more frantic as his team failed to get the win they needed; Luciano Spalletti’s Zenit being unable to break down Austria Vienna after they were reduced to ten men or, elsewhere, an Italian coach in a foreign country delivering a press conference so peculiar Eric Cantona would have been proud of it – Max Allegri confounding fans and critics alike for AC Milan.
Then, on Wednesday lunchtime, we were granted an Italian coach in a foreign country serenely guiding his team through to the final, having taken a four goal lead into the game from the away leg. Little could have been more different, and little typifies Marcello Lippi more than assured success.
Best known for masterminding the Juventus team of the late 1990s that contained Roberto Baggio, Alessandro Del Piero, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane and conquered Europe, but also notably coach of Italy when Fabio Cannavaro lifted the World Cup in 2006.
Over the last couple of seasons, Lippi has been building Guangzhou into a force to be reckoned with not just in China, where they sit top of the league by a long, long way, but of Asia as a whole.
It is impossible not to note that the Chinese Super League has a poor reputation in Europe. The experiences of Didier Drogba, whose spell at Shanghai Shenhua was well-documentedly unimpressive is a reference point, as is the fact that Yakubu Aiyegbeni, deemed both too lazy and too fat for European football, is able to hold down a regular starting place in China.
Both those things are true, yet in isolation mean nothing. Countless Brazilians have been assimilated into the CSL without any trouble at all and while Yakubu may have been unable to perform at the level he once did, he could surely have got a club in one of Europe’s lesser leagues; only they don’t have the same fanbase and funding; Guangzhou draw 40,000 fans (though their website claims 56,000) and most teams can lay claim to average attendances of more than 10,000.
Players such as Lucas Barrios, Seydou Keita and Zlatan Muslimovic have all graced the CSL this season and the standard of football is improving; not just of Guangzhou, but across the league as football breaks into what might well end up being one of its powerhouses of the future.
Don’t think Lippi is in Guangzhou just to further Chinese football, though – he’s there for success. His opening press cGuangzhou is one of China’s richest cities, and Evergrande are the country’s richest team –given they were promoted from the second tier after being invested in heavily, they could be seen as a Monaco of the East in Western parlance.
Indeed, Lippi was almost guaranteed to be successful at the Southern China Tigers. Having won the Chinese Super League in his first season, as well as the Chinese FA Cup, he led the team into Asia.
Although considerably bank-rolled, because of CSL restrictions, Guangzhou have only four (allowed five) foreign players on their books, including two Brazilians one of whom (Elkeson) has not only scored two hat-tricks this season, but also leads the league with twenty-two goals. Things have been made easy for Lippi and his technical staff, who include Michaelangelo Rampulla amongst their number.
Seemingly now, every week with Guangzhou, 65-year-old Lippi is still making history. Having qualified for the final of the Asian Champions Cup his side will face FC Seoul for the chance to become the first ACL winners from China in history. To get there by beating previously unbeaten Kashiwa Reysol 8-1 on aggregate is not just a statement of intent but a statement of arrival.
In truth, Evergrande have been improving throughout the AFC Champions League. Their record in the group stages was impressive – their 11 points being only one more than 2nd placed Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (South Korea) and third placed Uwara Red Diamonds (Japan) but was enough to finish top.
A draw in the round of sixteen against Australia’s Central Coast Mariners may have looked tricky, but Lippi’s side triumphed 1-2 at the Bluetongue and 3-0 at home (5-1 on aggregate). Against Qatar’s Lechwiya in the quarter-finals, they repeated the trick – a 0-2 away win followed by 4-1 at home (6-1).
I noticed the odds on Guangzhou were quite long when they visited Japan for the first leg of the semi-final. Seemingly the betting community isn’t quite sure what level a dominance of the Chinese League (of which they will confirm a third triumph in a row very shortly – if they win a game against Shandong Luneng at the weekend) translates as across the continent. Lippi was very respectful of Kashiwa before the semi-final and was effusive about their performance in a first leg his side won 1-4.
He also promised that they would be trying to win the second leg; something they were able to do by four goals to nil. For a man who promised to bring ‘the Italian way’ to China, he has a team performing something a little differently.
Ever authoritative, Lippi said brought Guangzhou’s achievement into perspective straight after the final.
“We played the ball around and took control and we showed our quality,” he said.
“We are now going to think about Sunday’s game and try to win the championship and then we will focus on the final”
For Lippi, a man with 5 Scudetti, 1 European Cup and 1 World Cup to his name, beating FC Seoul (about who he insists his side will prepare thoroughly, having had ample video of both sides in the opposite semi-final ready) would mean a return to a World Club Cup that he won with Juventus in 1996 – and would bring Guangzhou Evergrande, with their squad of the pick of Chinese talent and smattering of South American magic, very much into the eyes of the world.
Incidentally, Being champions of Asia isn’t the most valuable position in the world; Guangzhou are currently guaranteed $1.16 million so far, possibly rising as high as $2 million if they win the two legged final – coincidentally, they have the away leg first again. Though that figure will be far higher next year (Pro Evolution Soccer is going to cover the ACL, too) the big money is within the European markets and to get to the World Club Cup, to be seen globally as a force is key.
One thing is for certain. With Lippi in charge, Guangzhou Evergrande will win things. Its what he does.