Former Real Madrid and Liverpool boss Rafael Benitez vowed improvements at Dalian Pro after their latest defeat left them rooted to the bottom of their group in the Chinese Super League.
Pressure is building on Benitez, one of the best-paid coaches in world football on a reported £12 million ($15 million) a year after tax, with Dalian yet to win in six matches this season.
They lost 3-2 to Shenzhen FC on Thursday behind closed doors, their fourth defeat of the coronavirus-delayed campaign, with Fabio Cannavaro’s champions Guangzhou Evergrande up next.
From 2-0 down, goals from former Premier League striker Salomon Rondon and ex-Napoli skipper Marek Hamsik dragged Dalian back on terms in the second half, only for them to concede a penalty that was squeezed in by Shenzhen’s Cameroonian striker John Mary with 16 minutes left.
“A pity with the great reaction of the team, meaning they didn’t give up,” said Benitez, 60, who took Liverpool to Champions League glory in 2005.
“The reaction in the second half was really good for a young group of players. Little by little we (will) change things now and try to be ready for the future.
“We are doing well, (but) we made mistakes and then we cannot react as we’d like to.”
“We scored two goals and we were on top of the game, and the penalty lost us all the hope,” added the Spaniard.
Shenzhen fired their coach, AC Milan legend Roberto Donadoni, last week — one of two managerial departures in quick succession, after Uli Stielike was axed by Tianjin Teda on Wednesday.
The CSL has been revamped because of the coronavirus with the 16 teams split into two groups in bio-secure “bubbles” in the cities of Dalian and Suzhou, near Shanghai.
They are nearly halfway through the first stage of the reformatted season but it is not about to get any easier for Benitez or his Dalian side.
On Tuesday they play Cannavaro’s Evergrande, who are top of the Dalian-area group with five wins in six matches. After that comes Shandong Luneng, who are currently second.
Dalian lost 3-2 in their opening match of the season against Shandong, with former Manchester United star Marouane Fellaini scoring a hat-trick of headers in eight minutes.
The Dalian City News said Benitez could not be blamed for the individual errors of his squad against Shenzhen, but sounded the alarm with the headline: “Relegation alert!”
Titan Sports said that Benitez appeared so angry with his team that he resembled “a wronged child”.