Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League with an away goal aggregate victory over rivals FC Seoul. In the process, Marcello Lippi's side became the first Chinese side to win a continental competition since Liaoning FC won the tournament's predecessor in 1990.
Marcello Lippi has made history after his Guangzhou Evergrande side won the Asian Champions League http://t.co/vk9PlvxMYX— footballitalia (@footballitalia) November 9, 2013
Yet, for all of China's failings in the competition, the Super League champions' success was far from a shocking result. All through the competition they have breezed past their respective opponents and, indeed, it was somewhat surprising to see them tested in the final—after a year of dominance at home and abroad.
While it has been the club's three foreign attacking players—Muriqui, Conca and Elkeson—who take the majority of headlines, competition rules mean that the team will always be majority Chinese, and it is from those players that Lippi has coaxed a noticeable improvement over the past 18 months.
They should have won comfortably on Saturday, dominating the opening hour with somewhere close to 60 percent of possession.
While they were unable to maintain that pace into the final half an hour, they did enough to suggest that Sven Goran Eriksson's assertion of the side being able to hold their own in the Premier League level may not be too far off, per Titan Sports via QQ (Chinese).
Indeed, there are many Premier League sides who would be envious of the tactical flexibility that Lippi has instilled in his side. They have weaknesses, but Evergrande are very much leading the way in Asia with regard to tactical fluidity—something that can rarely be said about a Chinese side.
The Italian is undoubtedly fortunate to have a generous owner who has brought many leading Chinese players to the club, as well as the generously rewarded foreign players. However, many Middle Eastern clubs and, indeed, Chinese rivals have spent considerable sums of money without a fraction of Evergrande's success.
Even before Lippi's arrival, the club spent with wisdom. What Lippi has done, though, is bring in a team of backroom staff that would rival many of Europe's elite. The club also now runs a 2,300 student academy in cooperation with Real Madrid and boasts facilities that are nothing short of top-notch.
Once more, Lippi has been given an overseeing role on all areas of the Evergrande project.
It is on the pitch, though, that he has really transformed the side over the past 18 months. Former manager Lee Jang-Soo had many of the same players and had taken the side from the second division to a league title in their first top-flight season.
Lippi, though, has added considerably to the solid base that the Korean had built.
What has been most impressive about the Lippi era is that he has improved so many of the side's Chinese players substantially.
Technically, Evergrande's players—who are all internationals—are not bad at all, but Lippi has added a tactical understanding to their game that allows them to dominate some of the finest teams in Asia.
Victory over FC Seoul in the final was a fantastic example of what the Italian has managed to achieve.
An hour before kick-off there was a surprise as regular right-sided forward Gao Lin was named on the substitute's bench, with defensive midfielder Zhao Xuri taking his place on the pitch.
The new formation required Dario Conca to play as a false-nine, with striker Elkeson moving to Gao's berth on the flank.
The plan worked perfectly and, with former Celtic midfielder Zheng Zhi almost operating as a third centre-back, full-backs Zhang Linpeng and Sun Xiang found acres of space to push into on the flank.
Lippi's success in the tactical battle did not bring about the advantage on the scoreboard that it should have, but it was terrific to watch. The intelligence of Zheng and Conca allowed the formation to succeed, but every player was fully aware of their role within the system.
Coaching a new formation is nothing special, but what is impressive is that the side will switch approach and formation on two or three occasions in a match to counter individual threats. There were initial struggles with three-man defensive lines, but they are now perfectly balanced in the setup.
The individual excellence of South American forwards Elkeson, Muriqui and Conca is a major part of their success. Korean Kim Young-Gwon, meanwhile, is perhaps the best young centre-back in Asia. However, to undervalue the role of the Chinese members of the side would be somewhat unfair.
Guangzhou are a club built from the ashes of match-fixing scandals that saw the club relegated to the second tier, before the Evergrande Group took over the club in 2010. The new owners have spent huge sums of money but have transformed the Guangzhou side into a highly professional outfit in all areas.
The Guardian's John Duerden recently described them as having the makings of Asia's first superclub, and that, if accurate, cannot be a bad thing for the future of football in China.
There are many ifs and buts about whether there will be long-term benefit from the club's success, but they have certainly given Chinese football a morale boost after a difficult past decade.
Lippi and his men, as well as the Evergrande investors, will rightfully take the credit, for they have built a truly excellent team that has performed to a standard not seen in China before. Now the challenge for authorities in China is to enable other clubs to raise themselves to Guangzhou's level. That, though, will be far from easy.