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China 4-4 Zambia: Defending takes a holiday

Barbra Banda and Wang Shuang light up Miyagi Stadium

FOOTBALL-OLY-2020-2021-TOKYO-CHN-ZAM Photo by KOHEI CHIBAHARA/AFP via Getty Images

The easiest way to describe China and Zambia’s matchday one clashes against Brazil and the Netherlands would be defensively naïve. Both nations punished almost every time they made a mistake against two teams with eyes on medals this summer. Their afternoon clash in Rifu quickly became a hotly anticipated affair with fans expecting goals galore, which is exactly what they got.

The situation

The biggest complaint, when it came to Zambia against the Dutch wasn’t just, “the defending” but the incredibly high line the Cooper Queens opted to play. To 35-yards between the defensive line and Hazel Nail’s goal easily exploited, yet it was the lack of communication across the defence that saw the scoreline rise at a breath-taking rate. More often than not a simple step up from one player would have been enough to rule a goal out, the defensive line not one that moved as unit but as individuals who failed to spot the mounting danger.

A team that had clearly come to Japan wanting to play, wanting to take each match to their opposition and have fun with their football, Zambia were easy to watch with the ball but a mess without it. Yet, some of that better inter-play across the Zambian attack from their first game took the day off against China, attacks more rushed with few players able to get up and stretch themselves across the China defence.

China came into their clash with Zambia having cut a frustrated figure against Brazil, having similarly given up cheap goals. The key difference between the two young, inexperienced sides on matchday one, the simple fact that Zambia had managed to convert some of their chances, the Steel Roses without a goal to show for their work. Luck is a strange quantifier in football but even for those who didn’t watch the match, knowing that the Steel Roses hit the woodwork four times is enough to paint the picture of a team who could have used a four-leaf clover.

The preparation had been poor – China only having only played two competitive in 16 months, their play-off double against South Korea in April – the squad named by Jia Xiuquan inexperienced and almost experimental. Yet, China would not have expected to lose their first match in the bruising fashion they did and with a point to prove, exploiting the Zambian defence as the Dutch had.

Must win

Even with goal differences of -7 and -5, both teams knew a win, even a narrow one, could be enough to land them in the knockout rounds. At the very least, both, having come though so much to reach the Games, having proved their mettle in their respective confederations, were determined to show their best attacking football.

The chaos game of the tournament got off to a flying start when, six minutes in, Wang Shuang picked the ball up in the box, slotting it between the parted legs of both Agness Musase and Lushomo Mweemba, watching in delight as Nali let the ball run between her split gloves. Rachael Kundananji’s header at the opposite end was enough to best Peng Shimeng and bring the two teams level once again.

China v Zambia: Women’s Football - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Koki Nagahama/Getty Images

The parity was short-lived however, even after the Copper Queens survived a scare, watching Wang Shanshan’s goal be overruled via VAR for an offside in the build-up, when Wang Shaung nodded Wang Shanshan’s ball down and volleyed home.

Like a match without a torso at times, the ball refused to stick in midfield, the action condensed into both final thirds, build-up play rarely patient. The Copper Queens looked to make a name for themselves, individuals wanting their names to be spoken as they spurred their team on, no bigger sensation than Barbra Banda. For the Steel Roses, new to the set-up, there was the chance to cement themselves in Jia’s future plans, the interplay and understanding between those in red much more apparent.

Even more goals

Having combined for China’s second, Wang Shanshan again set Wang Shaung up for the fourth goal of the match, Shaung’s relaxed side-footed effort from just outside the box sending Nali to her right, leaving the goalkeeper with no chance as Mary Wilombe’s header redirected it. A well-converted penalty from Banda at the end of the first-half brought the game back into touching distance, the young captain back on the scoresheet just after the break with a fine solo goal. Evocative of her second, Banda completed her hattrick with another searing up capped up with a low finish into the left side of Peng’s goal.

For a match that looked to have little in the way of composure before the goals began to fly in, each new tally only added to the pandemonium and relentless need for both to attack. Having had a penalty overruled by VAR earlier in the second half, the Steel Roses were given a reprieve in the last ten minutes when a VAR review earned them a spot kick for a handball. Following the theme of the match, with most things put on target finding the back of the net, Wang Shaung added to her hattrick with a clinically struck penalty to beat Nali.

China v Zambia - Tokyo 2020 Olympic Womens Football Tournament Photo by Pablo Morano/BSR Agency/Getty Images

The one thing the clash didn’t need was a tied score and a late drive from China almost turned the match on its head once more when Xiao Yuyi’s drive cannoned into the woodwork. The rapid counter from Zambia forcing Li Qingtong to bring Banda down 20-yards from goal, earning the defender a red card, the free kick a forgettable one.

Beyond tomorrow

In a match that looked like it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, stop producing goals, eight was the limit with neither team able to find a vital winner. As it stands, both still have a chance to progress with a win in their final group match although few would fancy China against the Netherlands or Zambia against Brazil,

Still ranked just 104th in the world, Zambia play with a reckless abandon that speaks to the youth of the side. Despite their defensive frailties, in over 180 minutes in Japan, the Copper Queens have shown high promise moving forward. There might have been more of an anything goes approach to attack against China, but the defensive shape had improved between the two matches. The errors still easy to remedy with proper time spent on shape, understanding and patience, driving unity across the backline and snuffing out more chances for the opposition.

For Jia’s China, there are still endless questions over the ability of the defence he’s taken to Japan, the back four unchanged between the two matches, their combined caps before the start of the tournament just 18. The old guard in the squad, Wang Shaung and Wang Shanshan are the known quantities, and it’s of little surprise to see the two shining today but, despite the team’s ability to score, there was less excitement in how they attacked. Whereas Miao Siwen and Wurimugula added a much needed spark against Brazil, they lacked that same shine today.