Alberto Zaccheroni's Beijing Gouan exit a warning for coaches in China
Four months after taking his position as head coach of Japan in September 2010, Alberto Zaccheroni had led the Samurai Blue to the Asian Cup title. Four months after being appointed as head coach of Beijing Gouan in January 2016, the former head coach of Milan, Inter and Juventus was on his way home.
A dire 2-0 loss at home to Hebei CCFC in the Chinese Super League on Wednesday was the last straw and left the hosts a point above the relegation zone. Nine points from nine games was deemed not good enough for a club used to regularly challenging for the title.
The only question is whether the 63-year-old should have been given more time to turn things around. The majority of fans didn't seem to think so. After the latest loss, 56 percent of them told a leading Chinese online portal that they no longer had faith in the Italian, with only 30 percent keeping the faith.
Unrest has been growing among the 40,000 plus who routinely attend home games. After a 2-1 defeat to 10-man Jiangsu Suning on May 8, hundreds protested postmatch. Sources close to the club told ESPN FC that the coach was then told that the next game had to be a win. It was: a fine 2-1 victory at home to title-chasing Shanghai SIPG.
But that was all forgotten four days later after defeat at home to the newly-promoted Hebei. To see a team, albeit one that had spent heavily on Gervinho and Ezequiel Lavezzi, win in the capital in a first ever top flight season was too much and the jeers rang around the Beijing Worker's Stadium once again.
Zaccheroni insisted afterwards that he understood the fans' frustrations. He was frustrated too, pointing to the fact that Turkish international striker Burak Yilmaz, signed for €8 million in February, has started just once since his arrival from Galatasaray. Brazilian striker Kleber, formerly of Porto, has also missed more games than he has played.
As well as injuries, the club's preseason preparations were not up to scratch with the boss arriving after most of it was over and rumours of dressing room unrest haven't helped either.
On the pitch, the fans have been angry over Zaccheroni's habit of chopping and changing, some mystifying substitutions and a mere seven goals in nine games. Beijing were becoming boring to watch -- not a befitting tag for a club of such stature.
Zaccheroni admitted as much, saying "I take responsibility for the results, the performance today was very poor and we are not where we should be in the table" after the Hebei defeat.
Beijing, fourth last season, expect to be near the top. Until the rise of Guangzhou Evergrande and the new spending power that has appeared from 2010 onwards, the Green Lions were, along with Shandong Luneng, the country's major sides.
Hopes were higher than usual ahead of this season, not least because there was no draining Asian Champions League campaign to worry about. Zaccheroni, who led AC Milan to the 1999 Serie A title, was the club's first genuinely big name international coach and the club seemed to announce its new ambition with the signing of 28-year-old Brazil international Renato Augusto.
His arrival was something of a coup for the Chinese league but, so far, the midfielder's form and habit of losing possession have been disappointing. Ultimately being 15 points off pacesetters Guangzhou Evergrande after just nine games put Beijing out of the title race far too early and that, coupled with the drab playing style, put Zaccheroni in danger.
Mano Menezes may be the next high-profile boss under pressure. The former Brazil national team coach took over at Shandong, third last season, in December but results have been even worse than Beijing with just eight points on the board.
The saving grace for the Jinan outfit is the Asian Champions League. While big-spending Guangzhou and Jiangsu crashed out in the group stage, Shandong made it through.
Indeed, as Zaccheroni was managing his last game on Wednesday, Menezes was in the dugout as his team drew 1-1 with Sydney FC in the first leg of their second round match. Elimination from Asia will put his job under serious threat but if he can get to the last eight, the club's best ever showing on the continent, there will be more breathing space.
Ironically, after the second leg in Australia next week, the following league game will be at home to Beijing Guoan. Not only could it be a relegation six-pointer, it may be one that Menezes can not afford to lose.
Such are the stakes in China these days. Big money brings big stars and big name coaches but also pressure and expectations. Even Luiz Felipe Scolari, winner of the league and Asia double last season, is not immune at Guangzhou. The club's early elimination from Asia saw the 2002 World Cup winner placed under pressure, though Guangzhou's domestic league form has helped ease that since.
The Southern China Tigers are currently three points clear at the top and on course for a sixth successive title. Yet the only thing in the 2016 Chinese Super League season looking more inevitable than Guangzhou's march to No. 6 is the fact that there will be some more high-profile coaching casualties in the months to come.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.