By Nick Mulvenney
ABU DHABI, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Marcello Lippi has won the biggest prizes in football over his long coaching career but he did not sound overly confident of adding the Asian Cup to his haul ahead of China’s quarter-final against Iran.
The Italian looks likely to draw the curtain on just over two lucrative years as China coach and head home to retirement if his team is beaten on Thursday.
At 70, he still cuts an impressive, sometimes intimidating, figure and he fired a halftime verbal rocket at his players to spur them past Kyrgyzstan in a group game, while his tactical switch helped them come back to beat Thailand in the last 16.
In the last eight, they meet a far more formidable opponent in Asia’s top-ranked team, three-times champions Iran, who have reached the quarter-finals unbeaten without conceding a goal.
“Obviously, Iran are one of top teams in Asia, they played at the World Cup last year,” Lippi told reporters on Wednesday.
“They are physically very strong, well organised and have quality players. You can’t make any mistakes against them because they are very dangerous.
“We know it’s going to be hard but in football you never know. We also have potential and we’ll try our best to make something happen.”
Of course, most coaches indulge in mind games before matches, flattering the opposition and trying to avoid saying anything that might be used as motivation by their opposite number.
It was only when Lippi was asked what winning the Asian Cup with China would mean to a man who has masterminded a World Cup triumph and Champions League titles on two continents that Lippi perhaps revealed the weakness of his hand.
“You know, sometimes it’s not that you always have to win,” he said.
“You can also produce good outcomes. Those results can be that you can demonstrate that you have done a good job, that you can see the young generation of players coming through, for example, or the growing of the whole football movement.”
Iran coach Carlos Queiroz appears to have spent the last eight years with Iran in almost permanent negotiation over his future in the job, making it impossible to predict whether the Asian Cup might be his swansong.
The former Real Madrid boss ticked all the right boxes for a confident coach on Wednesday — describing himself as a “student of Mr Lippi” and forthrightly rejecting the favourites tag.
“There are no favourites when you play a game like this,” he said.
“We never play the suit of favourites, we play the suit of humbleness and respect. This is like a final, they don’t have history, they don’t have a past. Statistics and rankings mean nothing.”
The Portuguese did not need to talk about his potential legacy on Wednesday because everyone in the room knew that the success of his stint with Iran will be decided by whether he can deliver a first continental title since 1976.
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Christian Radnedge)