Soccer-New man Li Xiaopeng facing same old problems as China coach

By Michael Church

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Six games into another increasingly futile attempt by China to qualify for the World Cup, Li Xiaopeng will be confronted by a host of issues when he takes over the head coach's role from Li Tie.

The former Shandong Luneng tactician was handed the unenviable task of guiding the national team in their remaining four World Cup qualifiers on Friday after Li Tie quit following weeks of speculation.

He replaces a coach who had been groomed for the role since retiring as one of the country's most prominent players of the last quarter of a century.

Having represented China during their debut - and so far only - appearance at the World Cup in 2002, Li Tie was one of a small number of Chinese to have played professionally in Europe.

As a coach, the 44-year-old sought to bring the experience gained during his four seasons with Everton in the Premier League to bear on his tenure as China sought to overcome decades of underachievement to once again qualify for the World Cup.

He had been mentored by Marcello Lippi, the World Cup winner who led Guangzhou Evergrande to the Asian Champions League title before grappling with the expectations of the country's notoriously demanding football fans.

The Italian, though, fell short and quit after a World Cup qualifying loss against Syria in November 2019.

Taking on the role, Li Tie oversaw a turnaround to guide China into the final phase of Asia's preliminaries as he built on the promise he had shown during coaching stints with Hebei China Fortune and Wuhan Zall.

But, after one win in six games that came amid criticism over his reluctance to use the country's Brazil-born naturalised players and intense scrutiny for promoting personal endorsements on social media, Li Tie has quit.

In his place, Li Xiaopeng faces a monumental challenge to reignite China's slender hopes of making an impression on qualifying for Qatar 2022.

With five points to their credit, China trail leaders Saudi Arabia by 11 points while second placed Japan are seven ahead. Only the top two teams are guaranteed to qualify.

As a result, China's best hopes lie in somehow chasing down third-placed Australia and capturing a place in the playoff rounds. To do that, Li Xiaopeng must pick up wins over Japan and Vietnam in their upcoming games and hope Australia stumble.

But with an ageing squad and concern financial issues at Chinese Super League clubs will see key individuals refuse to play when the domestic competition resumes next week, the task facing Li Xiaopeng is daunting.

Even with a change at the helm, China seem as far away from bridging the gap between themselves and Asia's leading nations as they have at any point in the last two decades.

(Reporting by Michael Church, Editing by Kim Coghill)

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