China PR coach Yin Tiesheng made no secret of his target when he spoke to FIFA.com in advance of the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Japan 2012. “We're aiming for the quarter-finals," he declared.
However, after two Group D fixtures in Hiroshima, that dream of the last eight is hanging by a thread. In their opening match, the Asians were defeated 4-0 by defending champions Germany - and comprehensively outplayed to boot - as the 56-year-old coach freely admitted afterwards.
The smart money was on a similarly sobering defeat in the following match against joint favourites USA, but the Chinese rallied impressively to secure a 1-1 draw, and even took a 19th-minute lead through Shen Lili. US coach Steve Swanson paid tribute to his opponents afterwards: “China were very well organised and caused us problems. That was a good lesson for my players.”
Still undefeated against USA
The team captained by Song Sicheng not only denied the North Americans the security of booking a last eight berth with a match to spare, they also kept alive their own flickering hopes of progress. The result maintained USA's poor run against the Chinese at the U-20 tournament, as they remain winless in three meetings with the Asians. The two-time champions lost 5-4 on penalties in the 2006 semi-finals, with China winning a group match two years later 2-0.
“If we'd played against Germany the way we played against USA, it would have been a different outcome. It shows that the problem isn't our ability or technique, it's our mental approach. We conceded early goals against Germany, but the draw with USA is a confidence-booster," commented Tiesheng, unable to keep a note of irritation from his voice.
Nevertheless, it would still be a major upset if the Chinese, who have a single point, managed to catch and overtake the USA on four points. The North Americans have never been eliminated before the quarter-finals in all five editions of the tournament so far.
A sensational outcome depends on Tiesheng’s side soundly beating Ghana, and Germany defeating Swanson and company. “We've not given up hope, so we’ll give it absolutely everything," declared the China PR coach, who is attending his fourth tournament, although he sounded a note of caution too: “Ghana are strong with good individuals, and they're very athletic." His player Wu Haiyan issued a rallying call to her team-mates via Twitter: “Be prepared!"
Going into Monday's match in Saitama, the Black Princesses are playing for nothing but pride after losing 4-0 to USA and by the only goal of the game to the Germans. The Africans are definitely packing for home after the group stage, but Ghana coach Robert Sackey insisted his team would not simply go through the motions: “We want to end the tournament on a positive note. That would be good for this team and our country."
On the other hand, exiting at this stage would represent a minor setback for China PR. Twice runners-up at the U-20 tournament in 2004 and 2006, that early promise has remained unfulfilled in recent years. The Chinese failed to survive the group stage in 2008, and did not qualify for the finals in 2010.
In the circumstances, 2012 could well also end in disappointment. “We can honestly say we were drawn in the toughest group of the tournament, with an exceptionally high standard for a U-20 World Cup. But regardless of how it ends, it's been a magnificent experience," Tiesheng concluded in upbeat tones.