Harsh lesson as Evergrande sends Cannavaro 'to study'

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Fabio Cannavaro has been relieved of his coaching duties by Guangzhou Evergrande after a run of just one win in nine games for the Chinese Super League leader. XINHUA

The Chinese Super League's three-way title tussle hardly needed more drama, but faltering Guangzhou Evergrande supplied that in spades on Sunday, adding even more intrigue to the season's finale.

Sitting atop the standings, a point ahead of Shanghai SIPG with three matches to play, and two ahead of third-place Beijing Guo'an, Evergrande sensationally relieved Fabio Cannavaro of his head coach duties following Sunday's 2-2 draw at home to Henan Jianye.

The official line from the club was that Cannavaro had temporarily left his role "to attend a study class on Evergrande's corporate culture". However, it appears likely the Italian's banishment, following just one win in nine games that included an Asian Champions League semifinal loss to Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds, is the first step toward the 2006 World Cup winner's permanent exit.

Some observers have speculated that the "study class" explanation is a way of avoiding paying Cannavaro a big severance package, with the 46-year-old still having three years to run on his contract.

Captain Zheng Zhi has been appointed interim head coach, with the team's next match a mouth-watering clash at home to SIPG on Nov 23 following the international break, during which veteran Zheng and many of Evergrande's core players will be part of a Team China squad to face Syria in a crucial World Cup qualifier.

"Head coach Fabio Cannavaro will arrive at the headquarters of the Evergrande Group to attend a study class of Evergrande's corporate culture, during which Zheng Zhi will serve as the head coach," read a club statement on Sunday.

The timing left Chinese soccer fans in shock, with the news viewed more than 20 million times on Weibo by Monday morning.

The bombshell apparently also left Evergrande's squad stunned, with ppsports.com claiming "the players found it difficult to accept the decision at first".

The report added that just as club officials were informing the media of the Cannavaro situation, the Italian was consulting with the players in a locker-room meeting that lasted over an hour and a half.

"The players looked stone-faced when they walked out of the locker room," ppsports.com reported. "The red eyes of Zhang Xiuwei seemed to show that the midfielder had just cried."

Cannavaro and his coaching staff all but confirmed their tenure is ending when they left Tianhe Stadium carrying luggage and took time to bid farewell to waiting fans and journalists, who reciprocated with applause and hugs.

Media also caught the moment that Evergrande's naturalized star Ai Kesen, aka Elkeson, pounded a locker-room door, apparently in anger, after leaving the pitch.

The Brazil-born forward and his teammates will have to regain their composure when they host SIPG for what should be a fascinating title showdown on Nov 23.

Defending champion SIPG ratcheted up the pressure on Evergrande on Sunday by swatting aside Dalian Yifang 3-0 to move within a point of the leader.

Guo'an did all it could to revive its challenge by defeating bitter rival Tianjin Teda 3-1 to trail Evergrande by two points. Guo'an next faces Shanghai Shenhua on Nov 22, followed by games against Guangzhou R&F and Shandong Luneng.

After SIPG's visit, Evergrande travels to Hebei China Fortune before concluding its campaign at home to Shenhua on Dec 1. SIPG's other remaining games are against lowly Beijing Renhe and Shenzhen.

It would appear too little time to appoint a permanent successor to Cannavaro, who was first named Evergrande coach in late 2014.

Sunday's sudden announcement is nothing new for Cannavaro at Evergrande, which abruptly dispensed with the former Real Madrid and Juventus defender in June 2015.

In November 2017, Evergrande rehired Cannavaro as head coach.

In March this year, Cannavaro briefly juggled club duties with coaching Team China. However, the national side's lackluster showing at the China Cup prompted an end to that experiment before Marcello Lippi was reinstalled as national boss in May.

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