Italy’s Marcello Lippi was hired to take Guangzhou Evergrande to the next level, but he is fighting to salvage the Chinese club’s season after a heartbreaking exit from the AFC Champions League.
The white-haired World Cup and European Champions League-winning coach, 64, has seen it all, but even he was moved to reflect on soccer’s capricious nature after a late strike knocked Guangzhou out of the Asian quarter-finals.
“Football can be very cruel at times and unfair,” a downcast Lippi said late on Tuesday.
“We have worked all year to become better and to reach our objectives and we came to the ACL [AFC Champions League] with one objective,” he said. “But I believe we should have passed this round. We played well and had plenty of chances to score.”
The Chinese champions lost the first leg against Al-Ittihad 4-2 in Jeddah, but they looked through on the away goals rule when ex-Borussia Dortmund striker Lucas Barrios and Dario Conca put them 2-0 up in the first half.
However, Fahad Al Muwallad’s deflected shot on 78 minutes put the two-time winners from Saudi Arabia into the semi-finals at the expense of Lippi’s team, who were making their tournament debut.
The defeat compounds Lippi’s difficulties after Guangzhou, who coasted to the Chinese Super League title last year, slipped off the top spot — the position they occupied when he arrived in May.
With just four games left this season, the Italian is targeting a league and cup double to placate his wealthy pay-masters at Guangzhou, who showed a ruthless side when they dispatched Lippi’s successful predecessor Lee Jang-soo.
“Now we have two more objectives to go for and that’s the Chinese Super League and Chinese FA Cup, and we will put in all our efforts to reach those objectives,” the former Juventus boss said.
Guangzhou have splashed out on foreign signings including midfielder Conca — reportedly one of the world’s best paid players — and Paraguayan striker Barrios, and had put a premium on securing Asian glory.
The club even won a rule-change by the Chinese Football Association allowing them to field more foreign players in the AFC Champions League, indicating how seriously they view the continental club competition.
China has been waiting 22 years for an Asian club title since Liaoning’s triumph in 1990, and Guangzhou were the first to reach the AFC Champions League quarter-finals in six years.
Chinese soccer has been rocked by major corruption scandals in recent years, but big investment, including Shanghai Shenhua’s signings of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, is intended to revamp its image and standards.
However China remains an unpredictable arena, as seen when Shenhua sacked manager Jean Tigana after just a handful of games in April, and reportedly threatened to withhold Drogba and Anelka’s pay in a boardroom dispute.
Lippi will lead Guangzhou into the two-legged Chinese FA Cup final next month. Their battle to dislodge Jiangsu Sainty, Super League-leaders on goal-difference, begins on Sunday at home against Shandong Luneng.