China v Kyrgyzstan: Lippi hopes final year can be lucky number seven
Marcello Lippi said he hopes China can "become the surprise of this tournament" as he prepared to take his last stand as head coach of the nation at the 2019 Asian Cup.
China face Kyrgyzstan in their opening match on Monday and Lippi, who will turn 71 in April, is set to leave his post after the tournament concludes.
Guiding Team Dragon in the United Arab Emirates could well be Lippi's final act as a football coach should he choose to bring down the curtain on a glittering career that has seen him win the World Cup with Italy in 2006 as well as dozens of club titles and individual honours.
China will also go up against South Korea and the Philippines in Group C and Lippi billed his side as underdogs.
"We know that in a competition like this there are favourites like [South] Korea, Japan, Iran and Australia," the former Juventus coach told reporters.
"But in this kind of competition you always have a surprise team.
"So we really can become the surprise of this tournament, because it's now seven years that I have worked in China and I really want to give this big satisfaction to all the Chinese fans."
China have struggled throughout Lippi's two-year spell in charge of the national team, and their warm-up matches for the Asian Cup included a 2-1 defeat to Iraq, a 1-1 draw with Jordan and a 5-3 win over Abu Dhabi-based club Al Wahda.
Lippi reflected positively on his side's preparations for the tournament, following a training camp in humid conditions on the island of Hainan, and indicated that his team is ready to improve on China's performance in the competition four years ago when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by Australia.
"I am very satisfied with the performance of the players in training, [but] injuries and sickness did occur," said Lippi.
"This is truly the first time that we have enough time for better preparation tactically and physically."
Kyrgyzstan head coach Aleksandr Krestinin acknowledged that his side, who are ranked 15 places below China by FIFA, are not favourites to win their opening match while underlining the fact that Lippi's success as a coach came earlier in his career.
Krestinin's side won four of their last six friendlies over the last four months including a 1-0 victory over Jordan, who beat Australia in their Asian Cup opener on Sunday.
"Obviously China has a very experienced coach who is a world champion, but he was not the world champion with China," said Krestinin.
"We don't remember China winning anything in recent years."
Asked how he feels about not being favourites in Group C, the Russian coach replied: "That is the opinion of the Chinese media, but the score is currently 0-0 and we will see what happens."
PLAYERS TO WATCH
China - Wu Lei
Wu Lei top scored in the Chinese Super League last season with 27 goals in 29 appearances for Shanghai SIPG and the 27-year-old could hardly be in better form going into the Asian Cup. He picked up a foot injury in China's friendly with Iraq but is expected to recover in time to be fit and firing for the clash with Kyrgyzstan.
Kyrgyzstan - Anton Zemlianukhin
Experienced midfielder Zemlianukhin plays for Atyrau in the Kazakhstan Premier League and can function as a winger, a full-back an attacking midfielder. His scoring record for his country is close to a goal every other game and China will need to be wary of his finishing abilities.
KEY OPTA FACTS
- This will be the first encounter at the Asian Cup between China and Kyrgyzstan.
- China are making their 12th consecutive appearance at the Asian Cup, a run which started in 1976. It's the longest current run of participations after Iran (14).
- No team has played more games at the Asian Cup than China without ever winning it (51 games).
- China have won their opening game at the Asian Cup in each of the last three editions. The last time they lost their opener was in 1996 against Uzbekistan (0-2), who were making their debut in the competition.
- Kyrgyzstan are one of three teams to make their Asian Cup debut this year, along with Philippines and Yemen. Australia were the last team to reach the knockout stages of the competition on their first appearance (2007).