The list of clubs to have disputed the FIFA Club World Cup is nothing if not exclusive, but one more name has been added to the prestigious roll call this year. Currently rubbing shoulders with the global elite for the first time are Guangzhou Evergrande FC, yet despite their inexperience the Chinese outfit boast a very familiar face in the dugout. Few men know more about international competition than Marcello Lippi, and the veteran Italian coach is relishing this new chapter in his illustrious career after leading the side to AFC Champions League glory.
Appointed in 2012, Lippi is now gearing his squad up for Tuesday's semi-final showdown with FC Bayern Munchen, a poignant contest for the 65-year-old tactician given that some of his most famous triumphs have come against German teams. "I have some very good memories," Lippi told FIFA.com after being invited to look back on a few of those highlights. "I never faced a German side as a player, but I've taken on plenty during my time as a coach."
Lippi's maiden experience of Bundesliga opposition came at the quarter-final stage of the UEFA Cup in 1995, when his Juventus team drew 1-1 away against Eintracht Frankfurt before prevailing 3-0 at home. As fate would have it, Juve would come up against another German outfit in the next round, in the shape of Borussia Dortmund. This time, Lippi's men made an inauspicious start to the tie and had to settle for a 2-2 stalemate in Turin, which heaped the pressure on as they prepared to enter the cauldron of Dortmund's Westfalenstadion home.
The hosts may have been favourites to advance, but I Bianconeri sealed their place in the final courtesy of a 2-1 win that owed much to an Alessandro Del Piero at the peak of his powers. "Dortmund is a town that's brought me luck," explained Lippi. "I've been there three times – twice with Juventus and once with the national team – and we came out on top on all three occasions." He did not have to wait long for the second visit either, Juve being drawn with Die Schwarzgelben in the UEFA Champions League group stage two years later. La Vecchia Signora triumphed 3-1 in Germany, although Dortmund gained revenge via a 2-1 success in the return encounter.
Although Lippi retains fond memories of his outings at the Westfalenstadion, he would probably prefer to forget his trip to Munich for the 1997 Champions League final. Dortmund won that encounter 3-1 to lift the trophy Juve themselves had brandished the previous season – still their most recent victory in the competition. Likewise, Lippi's recollections of Leverkusen are similarly tainted, Juventus having lost 3-1 to Bayer Leverkusen during the second group stage in 2002, even if that defeat did come after a 4-0 success against the same opponents a few weeks previously.
The silver-haired coach's third experience in Dortmund came in 2006. Then leading the Italian national side, Lippi took his players to the city to face a Germany team high on confidence in the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ semi-finals, the host nation having never lost at the venue. "I remember beating them 4-1 in a friendly match in Florence a few months before, but naturally that game has a special place in my career," noted the former Sampdoria and Inter Milan boss. "We beat them 2-0 in extra time on their own pitch to qualify for the World Cup final. It was a huge moment for La Nazionale."
'Best team in the world'
The best was yet to come too, as Italy promptly went on to win their fourth world title, writing a whole new chapter in the history of Italian football. Of course, that history already featured a vast array of glittering episodes, and few resonate as much with supporters as Gli Azzurri's last-four success against West Germany at Mexico 1970. "For me and every Italian, the semi-final in 1970 is a wonderful memory, an epic match which we won 4-3 in the end," recalled Lippi, reflecting on a game that pitted the likes of Gianni Rivera, Sandro Mazzola and Roberto Boninsegna against Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller and Sepp Maier.
The latter trio all remain Bayern Munich legends as well as Germany icons, and it is to Bayern that Lippi is now turning his attention. He will go into Tuesday's game with a record of six wins, two draws and three defeats against German outfits, yet this will be a step into the unknown. "It's the first time in my career that I've faced Bayern," said the retired midfielder, who feels the European champions are clear favourites. "It'll be interesting to measure the gap between the best team in the world and one of the best teams in Asia. Right now, Germany has a style of football that's forward-thinking and of a very high standard; it's one of the best in the world."
The same could perhaps be said of Italian football, and also of the level reached by Lippi's Juve at the start of the century. "My Juventus side belongs to the past and it's never easy to compare teams which existed in different eras," explained Lippi. "I just know that at the moment Bayern are the strongest team in the world. And I don't know if my Juventus side was the best team in the world at that time."
I just know that at the moment Bayern are the strongest team in the world. And I don't know if my Juventus side was the best team in the world at that time.