After their previous cohorts reached two consecutive finals at FIFA U-20 Women's World Cups, the Chinese U-20 women's team is widely expected to be a force to be reckoned with at Chile 2008. With the tournament kicking off in a week's time, however, Steel Rosebuds coach Zhang Guilai was determined not to overload his charges with high expectations.
"The FA haven't set any specific goals for the tournament," said Zhang, who took over only in May, to FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. "The most important thing is to make sure the young players improve. We are more interested in the performances than the results."
Zhang's measured attitude is understandable, given the excessive pressure facing his team. The past year has seen China's men's teams fail to live up to expectations at nearly all levels, and the women's youth side have been left with the unenviable task of salvaging some international glory to cap a relatively disappointing year.
Zhang would have liked a stronger team at his disposal, but the unexpected loss of two key forwards has cast a shadow over their prospects in the campaign. Top striker Ma Xiaoxu is still nursing a serious injury picked up during August's Olympic Games, while Ma Jun, the team's new attacking revelation, suffered a torn cruciate ligament in a recent friendly in Australia. With the striking duo ruled out, Zhang has no options but to modify his tactical approach.
"Throughout our preparation, we centred the game plan around those two, but now we have to change our strategy. ."
The scoring duties, therefore, lie on the shoulders of Lou Jiahui, who figured prominently with the senior side during the Olympic Games. Her two national teammates have also been called up to add their quality and experience, with Weng Xinzhi shoring up the defence and Gu Yasha bossing the midfield.
Between the posts will be the towering Zhang Yue, whose 1.85m frame and shrewd positioning make her a possible heir to Zhang Yanru, whose shot-stopping earned her the Adidas Silver Ball award at Russia 2006.
At least on paper, the draw has been kind to the Steel Rosebuds. They open up their campaign against Argentina on 19 November, before taking on France three days later. Zhang hopes that the team will have already secured a place in last eight prior to their final group match against the mighty USA.
But their lack of knowledge about the opposition has caused concerns for Zhang, who admitted he has not received even a single piece of footage of their rivals. "Probably the best strategy against unfamiliar rivals is to stick to our own style, no matter who we are playing against," he observed.
The team's general manager, CFA Women's Department director Zhang Jianqiang, warned that no team can be underestimated at this level. "It has become a global trend that a women's team draws inspiration from the success of their men's sides. Given the feats of their men's teams in recent years, then, Argentina and France will be no pushovers!"