Asian glory for Ever-grande Lippi

Posted by John Duerden

Marcello Lippi is lofted into the air after guiding Guangzhou Evergrande to the Asian Champions League title.GettyImagesMarcello Lippi is lofted into the air after guiding Guangzhou Evergrande to the Asian Champions League title.

He's used to winning, is Marcello Lippi. During the press conference after his Guangzhou Evergrande team had just become the first Chinese champions of Asia since 1990, he was texting (his wife back home?) under the desk as his answers were translated. As he sat chewing gum in a salmon-pink shirt, there were not many smiles, but a sense of satisfaction at doing what he was hired to do in May 2012.

Liverpool were English champions the last time that a Chinese club sat on top of the world's largest continent. Now Guangzhou have taken a major step toward becoming a genuine global force, often rather too simply defined as becoming the Manchester United of Asia. Whatever it is, fans of both English clubs have rarely produced the noise levels generated upon the final whistle by their fellow reds on Saturday on a sultry night in southern China as the 23-year drought was ended.

There is no doubt that Lippi's men have been the team of the tournament as a whole, as the Italian pointed out after the game, but the margin of victory in the final could not have been closer. A 2-2 draw in the first leg in Seoul two weeks previously was followed by a 1-1 tie at a sold-out Tianhe Stadium on Saturday. The 42,000 home fans went home, or rather stayed in the stadium to celebrate and then hit the streets to party, happy.

Most of them had already spent hours waiting for the gates to open earlier that day. The excitement could be felt on a morning that dawned clear and bright after the smoggy skies of the day before, and three hours before kick-off, anticipation was rising along with the smoke from gently frying tofu outside the stadium.

Expectations had hit the roof days before, a slightly troubling sense for the local scribes. The general feeling that Guangzhou's name was as good as on the trophy -- most questions to Lippi asked him to compare what the Asian title would mean alongside his other successes (equal to the UEFA triumph with Juventus in 1996 but below the 2006 World Cup win, in case you were wondering) -- had journalists worrying that it could all go badly wrong.

But private doubts were swallowed by public displays of support -- this was to be Guangzhou's day and, this time at least, China's, too. "We stand for China" was the merchandising slogan on display as national newspapers pledged support for the domestic champions. This national backing was not universally popular among the harder core of Guangzhou fans, though when the shouts of "Zhongguo hengda" ("China Evergrande") went ringing around the stadium, they came from seemingly all comers.

Such was demand for tickets that being a season-ticket holder was no guarantee of getting in, and plenty of such supporters missed out. Fan-club members with three years under their belts got first share, and by the time it all filtered down to those with a shorter service record, tickets were gone. Even the touts were short of spares.

It was perhaps the appearance of the FC Seoul fans that reminded the hosts that there was still a game to play. Ninety minutes from the kick-off, the stadium was almost full, but the atmosphere was steadily building. If it is the first priority of the away team in a hostile environment to silence the home fans, then Seoul failed in that respect. This red army was in full voice during a fast-paced opening half-hour in which its heroes streamed forward with pace, menace and no little skill.

Once again, Dario Conca was pulling the attacking strings in his last-ever game on Chinese soil for Guangzhou before returning to Brazil's Fluminese, but Zheng Zhi dropped deep to lend his increasing authority and composure to central defence and enable the flying full-backs to bomb forward. The visitors, searching for a first individual title but an 11th for South Korea, rarely threatened and were hanging on at times.

Despite the hosts' dominance, half-time came goalless and mixed in with the entertainment was the first feeling of nerves. Seoul just needed a goal and sooner or later, a chance or two would come.

Yet, 13 minutes after the break, Elkeson broke the deadlock with a moment of class. A through pass from Brazilian compatriot Muriqui was slightly behind the striker, but he controlled the ball with a sublime touch and was off, streaming clear of the Seoul backline to shoot coolly past Kim Yong-dae.

If the roar that greeted the goal must have been the loudest football-related noise made anywhere in the world this weekend, the silence that greeted Dejan Damjanovic's equaliser just four minutes later was equally deafening. The Montenegro international scored twice against England in qualification for the 2014 World Cup and has been in great form of late, as he showed by seizing on to a little pass from Sergio Escudero inside the area and shooting home.

Both teams pushed for the decisive goal -- Seoul because they needed to and Guangzhou because they felt they did. Neither managed it. But Lippi did. He has managed another team to another title and now is the only man in the world to have coached Champions League winners in Asia and Europe. Add to that the small matter of the 2006 World Cup and all manner of Italian trophies, and the 65-year-old has, in the opinion of owners Evergrande, paid back every cent of his 10 million-plus annual salary.

And in December, he and Guangzhou will have a crack at the Club World Cup (after which Conca will leave). No Asian team has finished higher than third. He couldn't win this as well -- could he?


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