Uninspired. No backup plan. Lacking. That was China under Marcello Lippi. However Li Tie has breathed new life in the squad, capped off by China’s securing a place in the third round of World Cup qualifying with four straight victories after almost a year and a half without playing a competitive match.
After China was crushed by Iran and eliminated from the 2019 Asian Cup in Abu Dabi, it was obvious that something needed to be done. Lippi had taught the team everything he could, but they needed something different. The team was going in the wrong direction and couldn’t win the big game. However, like a punch drunk boxer, the old cigar chomping Italian was kept on for one fight too many. After successive negative results (a draw to Philippines and a loss to Syria) that saw China on the brink of failing to advance out of the second round of World Cup qualifying, a change was finally made.
The choice was a clear one, a Chinese manager needed to be given a fair shot for the first time in a decade, and it could have only been Li Tie. As a player Li was a midfield genderal who was one of China’s most successful footballers abroad, earned just under 100 caps for China, and went on to develop as a coach at the feet of Lippi.
He struggled in finding his feet in his first few matches shortly after being appointed. Then COVID hit. China would go from December 2019 to late May 2021 between competitive matches and Li would be thrown straight into World Cup qualifying with only three friendlies under his belt.
Desite all this and the turmoil of China’s matches being moved from China to the UAE, and all the history of China’s struggles in west Asia, Li had the team ready. A trained monkey could be put in charge & China could still trounce minnows like the Maldives and Guam, but Li led the squad to convincing victories over Philippines and Syria. He did so by playing a more fluid, attacking style of football, not just focused on defense. He’s also brought in some new blood, though the core of the squad is still similar. More than anything, he’s brought a new spirit to the locker room.
Li has turned things around from what looked like potential embarrasment to advancing to the third round of qualifying as the top runner-up. The next stage will be a real test for Li, with every match being a challenge, but there’s reason to be confident that this side is up for it.
Li Tie is the manager China needed, he deserves much of the credit for China’s recent run of form, and has fans dreaming that even more is possible.