GUANGZHOU, China (AP) – Ninety minutes before kick-off in the 2013 Asian Champions League final second leg, with the Guangzhou stadium almost full, Marcello Lippi sat in the dugout to smoke a pre-game cigar.
After leading Guangzhou Evergrande to the continental title on Saturday, the Italian can probably smoke anywhere he pleases in China.
The Italian arrived in Guangzhou in May 2012 with a stellar resume: one World Cup, one UEFA Champions League and five Italian titles.
Credentials aside, fans wondered why he was needed and why Lee Jang-soo had been fired. The popular South Korean coach had led the team to promotion in 2010, the Chinese Super League title in 2011 and when he was dismissed had Guangzhou in the knockout stage of the Asian competition at its first ever appearance and top of the domestic league.
Now the fans know.
''Lee Jang-soo did not deserve to be fired but we can see clearly that Lippi has taken us to a new level and now we can challenge internationally,'' Jiang Yi, a Guangzhou supporter, told Associated Press before the game.
On Saturday at a sold-out Tianhe Stadium, when the announcer called out the names of Guangzhou's players, including Argentine star Dario Conca and as many as nine Chinese internationals, it was the 65 year-old coach who received the loudest cheer from the 42,000 home fans, just as he does every home game.
None were louder though than the roar which greeted the final whistle as Guangzhou overcame FC Seoul on away goals. A 1-1 home draw followed a 2-2 tie away on October 26. It signaled a first Chinese club title in Asia since 1990.
The headlines usually belong to the South American contingent, signed with hefty transfer fees and paid significant wages. Elkeson may have scored the all-important goal, Brazilian compatriot Muriqui may have been named as the player of the tournament and Argentina's Dario Conca may be the team's creative inspiration but the domestic players that make up the majority of the squad have become increasingly important and impressive.
Dejan Damjanovic scored in both legs for Seoul and was impressed with the improvement of Guangzhou midfielder Huang Bowen, who left Jeonbuk Motors of South Korea in 2012 to sign for the Chinese team.
''Lippi has made a big difference,'' Damjanovic told Associated Press. ''Huang seems to be a much better player now; he is such a tidy midfielder and does the simple things very well, always passing and never giving the ball away. He has improved since returning to China. Guangzhou is a well-coached team.''
The Italian has introduced a new level of tactical flexibility that is not often seen in Asian football. At times in the final, Guangzhou switched between four and three at the back and did so seamlessly. The reds are equally comfortable playing 4-3-3, 3-5-2 or 4-2-3-1. Players talk of enjoying the varied training sessions.
''Everyone can see that the Guangzhou squad has grown a lot, more skilled, more organized and more thirsty to win,'' said Lippi. ''The victory earned by the team showed how our players have progressed.
''The Chinese players work so hard in training and are eager to learn and improve so it is easy to work with them. Technically they are good but they have improved in how they work off the ball. There are lots of good players in China.''
As well as tactical flexibility, Lippi has brought a winning mentality and instilled a belief in the Chinese players that has perhaps been lacking in the past. When faced with Korean and Japanese opposition, Chinese teams have tended to lose. The Beijing media even coined the term `Koreaphobia' in response to the national team's dire record against its small eastern neighbor. At Guangzhou however, if things do not go to plan, heads do not drop.
''We have confidence in him and he gives us confidence in ourselves,'' said Guangzhou defender Kim Young-kwon. ''With coach Lippi, I have become a better defender and all the players can say they have improved also. We go into every game believing that we will win.''
On a reported salary of over ten million euros ($14m), Lippi does not come cheap but after two Chinese Super League titles and now one Asian Champions League triumph in just 18 months, it is money well spent.