Lippi liking China's new look

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Marcello Lippi dishes out instructions to Team China players in Guangzhou last week. [Photo/Xinhua]

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."

Elkeson eyes goals

The addition of Brazil-born Elkeson, who has taken the Chinese name Ai Kesen, should take some of the pressure off Wu up front, with the recently naturalized Evergrande star hoping to deliver plenty of goals.

"I know the Chinese fans have put so much hope in me, and I will repay them with goals," said Elkeson in Guangzhou.

"My target is to score more goals for China and help the team to win. Hopefully we can have a good start."

Elkeson and Wu were strike partners at Shanghai SIPG, with the pair hoping to rekindle the old magic that last season helped the club to its maiden Chinese Super League title.

"Elkeson is significant in any team, and we cooperated so well before," said Wu. "His character could really help us improve performances."

Yennaris, aka Li Ke, who was born in London to a Chinese mother, made history in June when he became the first naturalized player to pull on the red jersey in a friendly victory over the Philippines.

The Beijing Guo'an midfielder looks set to line out against the Maldives on Tuesday, with Lippi indicating he has strong faith in his new foreign-born pair.

"Although they were not born in China, most of the naturalized players have lived and played in China for many years," said Lippi.

"They are familiar with the Chinese players and they know our training styles. I believe once they wear the Team China jersey, they will try their best to fight for the team."

There was mixed reaction to Elkeson's call-up, with some fans concerned about the effect it might have on developing homegrown players.

The Chinese Football Association, however, believes those fears are misplaced.

"Naturalized players can be helpful in order to achieve the short-term goal. It doesn't mean we will naturalize a lot of foreign players-the numbers will be very limited," said Chen Xuyuan, the newly elected president of the CFA last month.

"We will make sure naturalized players are the minority in the Chinese Super League and on the national team. All the fans want the national team to qualify for the Qatar World Cup, and if we can naturalize one or two core players, the possibility of qualifying will increase."

Team China squad to face the Maldives on Tuesday

Goalkeepers: Yan Junling, Wang Dalei, Zhang Lu.

Defenders: Zhang Linpeng, Wang Gang, Zhu Chenjie, He Guan, Gao Zhunyi, Li Lei, Li Shuai, Shi Ke.

Midfielders: Zheng Zhi, Wu Xi, Hao Junmin, Chi Zhongguo, Xu Xin, Li Ke, Yao Junsheng.

Forwards: Wu Lei, Ai Kesen, Yang Liyu, Wei Shihao, Yang Xu, Zhang Xizhe.

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