Last stand-off? Sven-Goran Eriksson faces old rival Marcello Lippi in Asian Cup
Both veteran managers, Philippines' Eriksson will be eager to build on superior head-to-head with China's Lippi in Group C clash in Abu Dhabi
On December 12, 1992, on the 12th matchday of Italy’s Serie A season, two up-and-coming managers came head to head for the first time in their careers.
Both were 44 years old, and on this particular meeting, they concocted an entertaining ebb-and-flow of a match for spectators in Genoa, the visitors, Atalanta, outscoring the hosts, Sampdoria, by the odd goal in five.
The winning manager was Marcello Lippi, a former Sampdoria player, who had been appointed to take charge of Atalanta that summer. The defeated manager was the Swede Sven-Goran Eriksson, who, like Lippi, had already worked in Italy’s top division with other employers.
He and Lippi were rising stars of their profession. More than quarter of a century on, they are well established in football’s Hall of Fame, and still apparently brimming with pioneer spirit.
On Friday afternoon in Abu Dhabi, they will shake hands ahead of their 25th managerial confrontation, contests spread across a mosaic of matches mostly in Italy, and some in China, where they were rivals in Guangzhou for a period.
They have both won major European club trophies, both managed at World Cups - twice at the same one - but this will be a first meeting at an Asian Cup. Eriksson, formerly with England, Mexico and the Ivory Coast, is now in charge of the Philippines. Lippi, who guided Italy to a World Cup victory, is at China.
That makes the Italian the favourite. His China top of Group C after their win over Kyrgyzstan, while Eriksson’s tournament debutants seek a first-ever Asian Cup finals point.
The Swede will not mind being the underdog to Lippi: he grew used to it over the years in Italy, where he regularly enjoyed applying his tactical nous to thwart Lippi’s teams.
He did so again and again.
That season of their first duel, Eriksson’s Sampdoria finished above Lippi’s Atalanta on goal difference. His Sampdoria then took six points off Lippi’s Juventus in the 1995/96 season, hampering Juventus’ defence of a league title that had burnished Lippi’s growing reputation.
They shared epic jousts, like the dramatic Italian Cup semi-final of 1997/98 when Eriksson, having taken charge of a well-funded Lazio, denied Lippi’s powerful Juventus a domestic double. His side denied them again by beating them in the Italian Super Cup.
By 2000, Eriksson’s Lazio had become Italian champions, and when they inflicted a 4-3 defeat on Lippi’s Inter Milan, it hastened one of the rare dismissals of Lippi’s decorated career.
Note the scoreline in that game: Lippi versus Eriksson has had a habit of tight margins but also goal-heavy seesaws, even in the cagey turn-of-the-millennium Serie A.
Old habits evidently die hard. The last time the two met, as veterans, Eriksson’s Guangzhou R&F lost 4-3 to the Guangzhou Evergrande Lippi had recently guided to the Asian Champions League title.
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Old habits of style die hard, too. Eriksson’s measured, consultative methods have been both a strength and a subject of criticism in his long career.
He embarked on his first Asian Cup having come off second best in a negotiation with his highest-profile player, the goalkeeper Neil Etheridge. Etheridge explained he wanted to spend January playing with his club, Cardiff City, rather than his country; Eriksson found no means to dissuade him.
Lippi, the Paul Newman lookalike, always seemed a fiercer type. China’s players have felt his steely edge. Trailing 1-0 at half time to tournament outsiders Kyrgyzstan on Monday, the manager raised his voice.
“I got angry with them, and I pushed them,” Lippi reported of the dressing-room dressing-down, not the first such eruption in his two years managing China’s national team. “We have been in this sort of situation before.”
But it worked. “I got the reaction I wanted.”
Helped by a goalkeeping error, China recovered to win 2-1, enough to embolden Lippi to think: "We could be the surprise team of the tournament.”
There are several candidates already for that role.
Encouraged by much that he saw in the 1-0 loss to South Korea on Monday, Eriksson keeps faith his Philippines can at least add their name to the parade of upstart results that already pepper the tournament.
And he has a personal record to maintain. In 24 meetings with Lippi, Eriksson has won 11 and been undefeated in 16.
If this is their last stand-off - and it may well be - the serene Swede wants to give a lasting reminder to the icy Italian that he had his No 1 often than most.
Updated: January 11, 2019 09:06 AM