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Lippi urges China to unite for ‘improbable’ World Cup run

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BEIJING (AP) Marcello Lippi has urged his China team and the nation to pull together to accomplish the “improbable” task of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup before he begins a thorough overhaul of the struggling football program.

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The Chinese Football Association formally unveiled Lippi as head coach of China’s Dragons at a news conference on Friday, almost a week after the deal was agreed.

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Chinese media reports say Lippi’s three-year contract is worth 20 million euros ($21.8 million) annually and makes him the highest paid national team coach in the world. Association officials have declined to discuss specifics of the compensation package for Lippi, who led Italy to World Cup victory in 2006.

China is ranked No. 84 by FIFA and is a perennial under-achiever in international football competition, despite massive spending on foreign players and coaches in the domestic league. High-profile managers including World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari and former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson have also arrived to take charge at Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG.

“I believe the players are all skillful and have no need to feel inferior or envy toward players of other countries, because they can reach the same level,” Lippi told reporters. “What they need is a sense of responsibility, mission and belief.”

Still, it’s unlikely China will even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gao Hongbo quit as head coach after the 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan earlier this month left China with just one point from four games in Asia’s last round of World Cup qualifying. China has qualified for the World Cup only once, when the tournament was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002, but was bounced out of the group stages without scoring a goal.

“In the qualification stages, our chances are not great, but what we need to do is pull together – the entire squad, the CFA, logistics, medical team – and maximize our chances and accomplish this improbable mission,” Lippi said. “After that, we can consider our long-term issues.”

Above all, the Chinese team – frequently derided by China’s soccer-loving public as a national embarrassment – needs to fix its mentality and gain self-confidence, said Lippi, who said his first priority is to psychologically evaluate his players.

“What I need to know first is why our players play very well for their club but only at 40 percent for their country,” he said. “I want to tell them it’s the highest honor to put on the country’s shirt and they need to fight and perform at the same level.”

Lippi is already familiar with Chinese football at the club level, having coached Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015. He led Evergrande to multiple domestic titles and, most notably, the Asian Champions League trophy in 2013.

The financial details of Lippi’s arrangement remains murky, with domestic media reporting his salary will be partially paid for by the real estate group Evergrande, whose owner, Xu Jiayin, is an avid supporter of Chinese football. Other Chinese commentators have questioned whether Lippi’s services are worth the expense.

CFA president Cai Zhenhua declined to address Lippi’s salary on Friday, citing his privacy, but said the amount was fair for a manager of his credentials.

The investment is part of a national soccer push. President Xi Jinping, a big fan of the game, has made improving Chinese football from the grassroots all the way to the international level a priority of his administration, saying it could boost children’s physical education as well as national pride.

Mexico smothers Cuba 7-0 to start Gold Cup strong

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If Tata Martino envisioned a perfect start to the 2019 Gold Cup, his wildest dreams came true as Mexico dismantled Cuba 7-0 in their first group stage game of the competition. In a completely dominating 90 minutes, Mexico asserted itself as one of the premiere title contenders of the tournament.

21-year-old Uriel Antuna, on his third international cap, snagged a hat-trick while Raul Jimenez was spectacular in the attack, with a hand in each of the first four goals of the game.

The onslaught started just two minutes in via a clown show at the back for Cuba that saw three defenders completely whiff on a clearance, with the ball coming off the post as well before Antuna bundled it into the back of the net for his first of a memorable night.

Raul Jimenez came inches away from doubling the lead in the eighth minute as he put a diving header just wide right as the early slaughter continued. After the opening 15 minutes, Mexico seemed to take its foot off the gas pedal, cruising through to halftime with very little goal action but also hardly allowing Cuba to see a touch of the ball, holding 76% possession through the first half-hour.

On the 30-minute mark, however, the second goal that had been begging finally came and the storm continued. Right through the heart of the Cuba defense, Wolves star Raul Jiminez finished it off through the two center-backs and past goalkeeper Sandy Sanchez. The third came before halftime as Diego Reyes bagged his first international goal since March of 2017 as a corner swung in to Jimenez at the far post and he poked it on net. While Sanchez saved his weak effort that seemed more like a delivery, it was pushed right to Reyes on the doorstep for the poke.

Cuba couldn’t make it to halftime before conceding again, with Mexico breaking down the right via Jiminez who crossed to the middle for Roberto Alvarado. The Cuban defense tracked back to intercept the initial cross, but the rebound fell to Antuna who stepped in front of Andres Guardado and ripped his second of the game.

The second half was no different as Mexico continued to pour it on, with Jimenez adding his second past the hour mark and 21-year-old Alexis Vega bagged his first international goal with 16 minutes to go. On the 80th minute, Antuna got free down the right and finished from a tight angle for his hat-trick.

Canada hammers Martinique 4-0 to begin 2019 Gold Cup

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19-year-old Gent striker Jonathan David is your trivia answer of the summer, scoring the opening goals of the 2019 Gold Cup as Canada comfortably downed Martinique 4-0 behind the youngster’s brace.

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The youngster scored his fifth international goal in just his fifth cap, continuing a hot start to his Canadian career. The winning moment came off a mistake at the back as Martinique goalkeeper Loic Chauvet misfired a pass to defender Daniel Herelle and David pounced, producing a delicious finish that saw him keep his cool to get Chauvet on the ground before clipping into the back of the net.

Martinique did not go down without a fight, as Kevin Parsemain missed a trio of great chances all just before halftime. The first saw him take a Kevin Fortune cross and toe-poke just wide left with the goal gaping, and moments later Atiba Harris was caught in possession leading to a Parsemain breakaway, but Milan Borjan saved low on the shot. Lastly, in first-half stoppage time, Parsemain put Canadian defender Derek Cornelius on his rear but his shot again was saved by Borjan at the near post.

In the second half Canada appeared to come out defensive-minded, and they struck on a ball over the top that completely fleeced the Martinique back line. Davis flashed by the high defensive line and latched onto the long ball from Samuel Piette, firing cooly past Chauvet yet again to put Canada up 2-0.

The floodgates opened after the hour mark, with Junior Hoilett and Scott Arfield both finding the back of the net with the Martinique back line all over the place. The rest of the match featured David going for his hat-trick, dragging a late shot wide left from distance looking for the milestone. Canada secured a solid start to the tournament just hours after the country’s women played to victory over New Zealand out in France at the World Cup.

Colombia downs Argentina 2-0 after big Messi miss

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A miserable opening 45 minutes gave way to a more exciting second half, and Roger Martinez came off the bench to win the day with a 71st minute stunner to give Colombia all three points in Bahia, supported by a late cherry on top from Duvan Zapata.

The goal came just minutes after Lionel Messi missed a golden opportunity to give Argentina the lead during a spell of serious possessional domination midway through the second half. Once again, the Argentinian collection of star forwards came up empty, a drought that continues to plague the side in big matches.

The first half, largely, was a physical mess with very few real chances on net. The possession was nearly even between the two sides, neither team registered a shot on target, and there were just five shots overall in the first half, including just one for Argentina.

Early on, Lionel Messi was at the heart of Argentina’s best chance as he delivered a stunning long ball forward for Sergio Aguero, but with David Ospina coming acres out of his net to challenge with a flying karate kick, the offside flag went up to end the chance. Colombia was dealt an early blow as Luis Muriel was forced off with an early thigh injury, replaced by Martinez in a move that would eventually prove critical.

Argentina suffered a near-disaster when Nicolas Otamendi delivered a dangerous back-pass to goalkeeper Franco Armani who sent it right back to his defender with both under heavy pressure, but they escaped just conceding a corner and it came to nothing for Colombia.

After the break, the game opened up a bit but there were still few chances on net. Messi nearly weaved his way through the entire Colombian defense, nutmegging Davinson Sanchez before Wilmar Barrios came in to cut the ball off, but the referee made a controversial decision not to award an illegal back-pass as Barrios then touched back to Ospina who collected in his arms. Instead, he showed a yellow card to Leandro Paredes for dissent after the action arguing his case.

The two teams burst into a scuffle when Messi was hacked down by Juan Cuadrado past the hour mark as Argentina began to grab hold of the game. Cuadrado received a yellow of his own and was withdrawn shortly thereafter. On the hour mark, Messi had a golden opportunity to give Argentina the lead, but as Paredes saw his effort saved, the rebound came to Messi but he headed wide right from point-blank range despite the goal gaping.

Minutes later Colombia took the lead through a simple yet stunning move as Martinez burst down the left and cut inside just outside the top of the penalty area, unleashing a fabulous strike that left a diving Armani with no chance as it buried into the side netting inside the far post.

Argentina boss Jorge Sampaoli somehow decided that 31-year-old Matias Suarez was the choice for a last throw of the dice off the bench, choosing the man with two prior international caps over the likes of Paulo Dybala and Lautaro Martinez. Instead, Colombia went down the other end and eviscerated the Argentina defense with a vicious counter down the left as Roger Martinez combined with Jefferson Lerma. The latter crossed to the doorstep and Zapata – who came on just five minutes earlier for Radamel Falcao – somehow beat the napping center-back pairing of German Pezzella and Otamendi.

The win for Colombia gives them an early advantage in Group B, while Argentina can still rescue its situation with matches remaining against Paraguay and Qatar. The loss marks the third in Argentina’s last four competitive matches, with losses to France and Croatia in World Cup play prior to this defeat.

Follow Live: Gold Cup kicks off with Mexico and Canada in action

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The 2019 Gold Cup is here, and both Mexico and Canada are in play as the tournament kicks off at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

The games mark the first round of Group A play as Canada officially kicks things off against Martinique at 7:30 p.m. ET, while Mexico takes the field at 9:30 p.m. ET.

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Canada made its way to its 11th straight Gold Cup by bulldozing the CONCACAF Nations League with a perfect 4-0-0 record and a +17 goal differential to finish atop the table along with Haiti. Martinique takes the field for its sixth Gold Cup having also recorded a 4-0-0 record in the Nations League.

Mexico, meanwhile, will see Tata Martino take charge of his first competitive match as head man of El Tri. He comes into the Gold Cup on a high, having won each of the four previous matches he has taken charge of. Mexico has high expectations for the tournament, and a big start over Cuba would set the stage.