Like Mr Burns when confronted by Homer Simpson, the release of Jia Xiuquan’s China squad for the Olympic Games prompted one question: Who the devil are you? A nation who had only played two matches in the 17 month stretch coming into the Games – their final play-off double-header against South Korea in April – Jia opted for wholesale changes for Tokyo.
With a squad of 22, the manager named five uncapped players in an inexperienced and youthful side that could only boast three players with more than 30 caps. The side one of the greater unknowns at the Games, their first match against Brazil providing an unwanted identity.
Despite a good spell right at the start of the match, Brazil quickly put the sword to the Steel Roses, the crowded defence could do little to stamp out the threat as Marta powered home a loose ball. Things went from bad to worse for China when Peng Shimeng spilled a weak effort from Bia with Debinha able to slot the ball into the waiting goal.
Not just being overrun at the back but wholly disjointed across the pitch, the Chinese midfield was nowhere to be found until the coach opted to go to his bench just after the half hour mark. Debutant Wurigmula on for Wang Yan, the change from Jia, pulling the Steel Roses up the pitch, giving them a greater presence in midfield, players who had seemed like strangers suddenly finding each other.
From a team that had looked every part like their poor preparation, instantly China sprang to life, Miao Siwen’s punt from range drawing a fine save from the previously untroubled Barbara. The last ten minutes of the first half and first 15 minutes of the second belonging to the team who trailed by two goals. More assured in attack with more understanding in the build-up, players communicating with each other more although poor decision making in crunch moments remained a concern.
The chances and half chances continued to flow for China as the team clipped the woodwork on either side of an effort Wang Shuang could only drag wide. Despite the better work from the Steel Roses, their inability to finish off their chances spurred Brazil on. The South American powerhouse forcing the pendulum back in their favour as Marta riffled in a low shot to beat Peng at her near post.
The match summed up for China in the four minute window when they got forward up the wing, Shuang’s cross-cum-shot pushed against the underside of the bar by Barbara with Wurigmula only able to nod the rebound against the still shaking bar. A mistake at the back allowing Andressa Alves to get into the box with the ball, the challenge with minimal contact from Wang Xiaoxue enough to leave the referee pointing to the spot, Alves deadly from 12-yards.
With the wind dragged back from their sails, yet another mistake at the back gifting Brazil a chance for their fifth of the game, Bia heaping the misery on in the final knockings, the match finishing with a whimper from the Steel Roses.
Having grown into the game, carving out chances and getting players like Zhang Xin, Wang Shuang and Miao more involved in the build-up, there was nothing but positives for Jia to take until the last 16 minutes. The tactical shift in the first half had changed the match but China’s inability to put the ball into the back of the net was the most costly, the team far better with the ball in the opposition’s half than when asked to defend. The more the Steel Roses found themselves foiled in attack, the more the defence began to shake and make the same mistakes of the first half. Brazil clinical in every way their opponents were not, the gifts from the Asian nation presented as if they were filling up Santa’s sleigh.
The match heavy with “what ifs?” What if Wurimugla had started? What if this team had played friendlies this year? What if one of the four times the ball hit the woodwork it had crested into the back of the net instead?
For China, there is little time to dawdle on the what ifs, especially given the rapid turnaround between matches, next up is Zambia and the best chance for the Steel Roses to put right their mistakes from today and find a salve for the wounds inflicted by Marta and co’.