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Despite fanfare, Chinese fans doubt Lippi will work miracles

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BEIJING (AP) A native of Shanghai, a city synonymous with the Chinese growth miracle, Yi Weizhong watched up-close as his country morphed into a world economic powerhouse.

Yet he can’t envisage anything like that happening on the international football scene, doubting that even a coach of Marcello Lippi’s caliber can transform the dismal national team into a genuine World Cup contender.

“It’s not worth hiring Lippi,” Yi said, referring to the 2006 World Cup-winning manager’s appointment as head coach of the Chinese team.

“I would rather hire more good coaches for youth training,” added Yi, a salesman, who attended a game last week at Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium. “I can’t see hope for the next 10 years.”

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Ever since the Chinese Football Association announced last month it had coaxed Lippi out of retirement, the national team’s long-suffering fans have greeted the news with indifference, cynicism, and even a hint of outrage.

Rather than celebrating the appointment of the most high-profile coach China has ever had, some supporters have balked at the size of Lippi’s rumored contract.

A popular joke circulating on the Wechat messaging service compares it with “a nouveau riche family hiring a Harvard professor to tutor their kid.”

Given the team’s record of failure under a string of foreign and Chinese coaches, the problems are more often attributed to the lack of a strong youth program and a misplaced, money-driven focus on the domestic league.

Lippi was hired to replace Gao Hongbo, who quit after a 2-0 loss in Uzbekistan last month left China with one point from four qualifying matches and with little hope of making it to Russia in 2018. China has qualified for one World Cup – the 2002 edition co-hosted by Japan and South Korea – where it bounced out in the group stage without scoring a goal.

Fed up with such results and seeking to close a glaring gap in its international sporting prowess, China this year announced an ambitious football development plan closely identified with President Xi Jinping, a fan of the game. The plan envisions 50 million players joining in the game by the end of the decade and the transformation of the country into a “first-rate major footballing power” by 2050.

The blueprint is seen as another aspect of Xi’s grand narrative of national rejuvenation – dubbed his “China Dream” – that is generally a point of pride for the public. Yet the mixed reactions to Lippi’s appointment reflect a deep cynicism when it comes to supporting a football team that is ranked 84th and which also recently lost to Syria.

Though Xi’s administration has been applauded for proposing to build academies and thousands of football fields, the politically-tinged directive has also spurred the domestic league into spending extravagantly on foreign stars and big-name managers. That has prompted talk of a bubble that will burst before any benefits trickle down to the grassroots.

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Against that backdrop have been reports in Italian and Chinese media that Lippi would be paid a record salary of 20 million euros a year.

The former Juventus and Italy coach told Italian reporters last week the figures were exaggerated, but that hasn’t quieted grumbles about yet another football import taking money that could be spent developing Chinese youngsters.

Ma Dexing, one of China’s best-known football commentators, said Xi’s campaign, with its intended emphasis on developing youth, was already “losing its way” amid China’s frenzy of flashy managerial hires and exorbitant player purchases. But Ma said hiring Lippi was justified at whatever cost.

“His situation is different,” Ma said in an interview. “The national team is the dragon’s head – the symbolic leader. If it doesn’t do well, everyone else loses interest in football.”

Lippi, who guided Italy to World Cup success in 2006, coached Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015, winning domestic titles and the Asian Champions League. Rather than serve merely as another foreign figurehead, Ma said, Lippi has the authority and the experience of working in China to truly overhaul the country’s football organization.

“In the past they changed the water but not the medicine,” Ma said. “This is a real revolution.”

In his first meeting with the Chinese media as national coach, Lippi said his top task would be to evaluate his players’ psychology and boost their confidence, rather than introduce new tactics. He said it was highly improbable for China to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but urged the nation to back his players.

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Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based British sports commentator on China Central Television, said in some ways China resembled England, a country also locked in a perennial cycle of high short-term expectations and intense pressure on the national team, followed by disappointment and cynicism. Chinese football authorities need more independence to do their work, Dreyer said.

“They need someone who can come in and say, `Give me 20 years, you can’t expect results in two years just because you want them,”‘ Dreyer said. “But how can they suddenly be free from the government and not answering to Xi Jinping?”

Others are less positive. Outside Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium, property manager Xu Chao said he preferred watching local club Shenhua because the national team’s level of play was simply “unwatchable.”

“It’s useless to hire an expensive coach when the team’s foundation is not good,” Xu said.

Yan Shihao, a junior in university, said it wasn’t just China making a costly bet by hiring Lippi.

“Lippi chose China,” he said. “It’s a brave decision to gamble with his honor.”

Associated Press researcher Fu Ting contributed to this report from Shanghai.

Giroud upset with reserve role at Chelsea

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Olivier Giroud does not look back on his transfer to Chelsea and wish he had done things differently, but that doesn’t mean things are all sunshine and roses for the 33-year-old.

Giroud, who moved to Chelsea from Arsenal in the winter of 2018 after six years with the Gunners, has played just 43 times in the Premier League, averaging just 35 minutes per appearance. That has him frustrated, hoping to prove his loyalty to the club and work harder than the other options up front.

“I had competitors in attack – [Alvaro] Morata, [Gonzalo] Higuain, who ended up leaving,” Giroud said. “I won at the end: I played the final of the FA Cup in 2018 and the [Europa League] final in 2019. Once again, I’m starting the year in a difficult situation. But as my brother says, I have always built myself in the face of adversity.”

Girou is trying to be smart about how he approaches the competition for time with the likes of Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi, but he says it is emotionally taxing.

“You do not have to be fatalistic in certain situations,” Giroud says about keeping a level head. “I have always been respectful and humble. Even if I do not agree with the coach, I do not criticize him. But in myself, I cannot accept it because I know what I’m worth on a pitch.”

The French international has made just three league appearances this season, mostly thanks to Abraham’s scalding form. Abraham, still just 22 years old, has snatched his opportunity for first-team minutes with eight goals in eight games to start the campaign. That has left Giroud on the sidelines for each of the last five league games, missing out on a spot in the matchday squad altogether for the last three.

Despite his struggles at the club level, Giroud has maintained his place in the French national team, missing just five matches of France’s last 64 games, including 37 of the last 39.

James says he was not knocked unconscious in Wales draw

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Head injury awareness again rose to the forefront in the 1-1 draw between Wales and Croatia in Cardiff when Daniel James went down after colliding with a pair of opponents.

The Manchester United winger looked to almost sure have been knocked unconscious when Domagoj Vida’s knee appeared to tap the back of his head while challenging for a ball in the air. Vida went toppling over the back of teammate Borna Barisic who ducked out of the way, but it was James who many were concerned for as he lay motionless on his back with his eyes closed.

Yet James was allowed to come back onto the field and completed the full 90 minutes, sparking criticism from injury advocates and fans who were concerned for James’ safety on the field, at potential risk for even more serious consequences should he indeed have suffered a concussion.

After the game however, despite what fans saw as James lie on the turf, the 21-year-old insisted he was not knocked unconscious. “I’m fine,” James claimed after the match, speaking to Sky Sports. “I think he just caught me in the head but I didn’t get knocked out fortunately.”

Wales boss Ryan Giggs backed up the decision as well, calling James’ motionless display “a bit of acting.”

“The medical staff went over, he was compos mentis and we did all the checks at half-time and he was fine,” Giggs said, referring to the latin phrase for “of sound mind.”

If James was indeed faking unconsciousness, it’s natural to wonder if he should face a fine from UEFA for looking to con referees, and in the process possibly confusing the independent neurologists on site assigned to assess head injuries.

ESPN broadcaster Taylor Twellman, who has been outspoken over the past few years advocating for head injury awareness after his career was cut short by concussions, took to Twitter to criticize Wales for allowing James back into the game. Twellman, who was on the ESPN call of the broadcast with Ian Darke, said more needs to be done to prevent players from being able to force their way back onto the field, lest someone be killed by second impact syndrome.

Former Hull City player Ryan Mason, who was forced to retire after a serious skull fracture saw him fighting for his life, was also seriously concerned about the incident.

Interestingly enough, later in the match just seconds after the second half restart, young Wales midfielder Ethan Ampadu was whalloped from behind by Croatia’s Bruno Petkovic in a wild and reckless aerial challenge. Petkovic’s elbow went clattering into the back of Ampadu’s head, and the was left writhing on the ground holding his head. The Chelsea youngster was taken off the field and immediately replaced by Joe Morrell, while Petkovic was lucky to escape with just a yellow card.

Kane reflects on Tottenham, England struggles

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Harry Kane keeps finding the back of the net, but his teams keep losing.

The 26-year-old striker has bagged five Premier League goals in eight games for Spurs thus far, plus another seven goals for England in five Euro 2020 qualifiers this cycle. Yet Tottenham sits ninth in the table after three losses already this season, while England slumped to its first Euro defeat last time out, putting its seeding at the Euro finals next summer in jeopardy.

Kane is hoping to be a leader through the tough times for both club and country, wearing the armband for both as it currently stands.

“I think you need to lead by example,” Kane said ahead of England’s visit to Bulgaria on Monday. “Not getting too down when you lose a game, not getting too high when you win games. It is a long, old season for club and country ahead – a lot of games to be played so there are going to be tough periods.”

Kane has taken over the England captaincy on a permanent basis, and is filling in for the injured Hugo Lloris at Tottenham. “I am still the same person,” he said. “I still try and lead by example on and off the pitch and I will continue to do that. I have been in high pressure situations before in my career, whether that is going through goal droughts, playing in high-pressure games or not playing well as a team. It is something I will take in my stride and improve on.”

Leading by example includes finding the back of the net, while also supporting teammates both on and off the pitch. He knows even if he’s in good personal form on the stat sheet, there’s always ways to improve and help the squads through tough times.

“I am scoring goals but can I get more assists, create more chances? So yeah, I always look at little things I can get better at. Yes, the England form has been good but as ever, it can be better. We will see if I can continue scoring. It has been a good campaign but important I do not stop now.”

Euro qualifying: Gundogan saves 10-man Germany, Bale earns Wales draw

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Germany played for much of its visit to Estonia with 10 men as Emre Can was sent off for a bad last-man tackle just 14 minutes in, but Ilkay Gundogan‘s second-half brace saw Germany slide through with all three points on a 3-0 win to jump back on top of Group C. The all-important first came on a deflected effort from just outside the box to the right of center, while his second came minutes later with a shot from nearly the same place but just inside the area. Timo Werner added the third with under 20 minutes to go.

Wales secured a 1-1 draw at home against Croatia, but both sides will have greivences with the refereeing. Daniel James was taken out by Dejan Lovren on the edge of the box eight minutes in and likely should have been a penalty kick as the Liverpool defender barged James over without playing the ball. After Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead moments later, Gareth Bale would equalize just before halftime one a silky play through the Croatian defense, but a foul in the buildup wasn’t called that would have stopped play before the goalscoring moment.

There were also a pair of scary moments that involved nasty-looking head injuries. James came together with a pair of Croatians in the first half, and while it looked initially like Borna Barisic and Domagoj Vida had taken the brunt of the clash, James appeared to lose consciousness thanks to a knee in the back of his head. Despite the appearance of a clear distressing head injury, James was allowed to continue. Just second after the halftime break, Ethan Ampadu settled under the ball for a header until Bruno Petkovic blasted through his torso from behind, sending the Welsh midfielder to the ground awkwardly, holding his head in agony. Petkovic came in so hard that he earned a yellow card and maybe could have even seen red on another day. Ampadu was not allowed to continue, replaced immediately by Joe Morrell. Also notable in the match, Mateo Kovacic was taken off at halftime after appearing to pick up a muscle problem.

Austria held on for a 1-0 victory over Slovenia to temporarily jump into the lead in Group G, ahead of Poland on goal differential. Hoffenheim defender Stefan Posch scored the game’s only goal, a 21st minute effort off a corner. The back line did the rest, holding the hosts to just two shots on target in Ljubljana.

Poland secured qualification to the finals with a 2-0 win over North Macedonia behind goals from Przemyslaw Frankowski and Arkadiusz Milik, both which came in the final 20 minutes. The first was a messy finish from Chicago Fire winger Frankowski, collecting a flubbed Robert Lewandowski shot and poking it through past goakeeper Stole Dimitrievski. The second goal was much prettier, with the referee playing advantage after Lewandowski was fouled, and Milik delivered a delicious looper into the far corner.

Click here to see a roundup of the action from the early slate of games, including wins by Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.

Full Sunday Euro 2020 qualification scoreboard:

Kazakhstan 0-2 Belgium
Belarus 1-2 Netherlands
Cyprus 0-5 Russia
Hungary 1-0 Azerbaijan
Scotland 6-0 San Marino
Estonia 0-3 Germany
Poland 2-0 North Macedonia
Slovenia 0-1 Austria
Wales 1-1 Croatia

Teams who have secured guaranteed Euro 2020 qualification:

Italy
Belgium
Russia
Poland