China PR seized the early initiative in Group B this afternoon, but it was only after an early scare and a fraught opening half-hour that the strength and experience of the 2004 finalists finally told against tournament newcomers Finland

Player of the Match  Ma Xiaoxu  was later hailed as "top class" and "the difference between the two teams" by the Finns' coach Jarmo Matikainen, and his Chinese counterpart also sought to highlight the performance of his much-vaunted skipper.

"This was the first game at a World Championship for most of our players and I think you could see that they were a little nervous,"  Shang Ruihua said afterwards. "We certainly were not at 100 per cent, especially in the beginning, but fortunately our captain produced an excellent performance and we got the result that mattered."

The Asian champions had started this match with a record of won eight, drawn one, lost none in their previous meetings against the Finns, but Matikainen's dogged debutantes clearly hadn't read the script.

Indeed, with little over a minute on the clock, the unfancied underdogs sought to begin writing their own football fairytale by breaching the Chinese goal with their first attack of the match. Credit, initially, went to strike partners  Linda Sallstrom  and Leena Puranen, who combined intuitively on the left flank to force a first-minute corner against the sluggish-looking favourites.

Sallstrom, quick, direct and dangerous throughout, duly delivered an inviting, inswinging cross and, with Niina Hyvonen in close proximity, the hapless Yuan Fan inadvertently sent a glancing header flashing past her own keeper at the near post and, in doing so, scored the quickest goal in the competition's history (0-1, 1').

Stunned, China attempted to rouse themselves and within a few minutes of watching the favourites fall behind, we were given an impressive first glimpse of the colossal Ma, who towered above her unfortunate marker and might have done better than heading over from an inch-perfect Zang Wei Shuang cross. 

Ma's growing influence spelled bad news for Finland, and there were yet more warning signs when, after You Jia had shot into the side-netting on 22 minutes, only an excellent save from Tinja-Rikka Korpela prevented China's rising star from hauling her side level from 16 yards.

For Finland, however, this merely served to delay the inevitable, and when Ma crashed to the ground under the challenge of Essi Saino penalty with 10 first half minutes remaining, it was no surprise that the Chinese captain dusted herself down to coolly convert the resultant penalty (1-1, 37').

Subduing the favourites' hulking centre-forward was now proving impossible for the Finnish defence, and as the seconds ticked down to half-time, only a fingertip save from Korpela prevented Ma from doubling her tally. 

Ma: 'I will do better'
A similar pattern was quickly established in the second half, which began with the irrepressible 18-year-old twice jinking her way through in the left channel and each time narrowly missing out on finding the far corner of the net.

With his side now under siege, Matikainen moved to withdraw Puranen to a more deep-lying role, leaving Sallstrom to plough a lone furrow up front in the punishing afternoon heat. For a time, the change helped steady the Finnish ship, and although they needed a point-blank save from Korpela to deny Zhang what looked a certain goal, a slick breakaway ended with Sallstrom bursting clear only to shoot straight at the Chinese keeper.

It was to prove a pivotal moment because, within second, play flowed to the other end, where Wei Zhu sliced open the Finns on the left before delivering a measured cross that substitute Zi Jingjing nodded home from close range (2-1, 72).

For all the Nordic's side's brave resistance, no-one could question that the goal earned China their just reward from a match they dominated, and Ma twice went close in the latter stages to increasing the margin of this hard-earned victory.

Finland live to fight another day at Russia 2006, but a draw is now the least they require in their next match against a Canadian side who will hope to join China at the group's summit with victory over Nigeria this evening.  

Ma's role in the Chinese win was universally recognised, with FIFA's Technical Study Group representative, Tina Theune-Meyer, leading the acclaim in naming the 18-year-old as Player of the Match.

It seemed, in fact, that the only person in the  Podmoskovie  stadium not impressed with Ma's performance was the player herself. "I was not at my very best," she reflected afterwards. "I still missed many opportunities and, as captain, I really want to lead my team-mates in the best possible way. I will do a better job in the games still to come."

If Ma proves good to her promise, China's rivals would be well advised to be very wary indeed. 

Player of the Match: MA XIAOXU
"China's play was very varied and the introduction of Zi Jingjing undoubtedly made a difference to their attacking play. But Ma was the best player on the pitch. With her, there are so many facets to her game, and she was always dangerous, either dribbling or with shots, and led her team with personality and intelligence," Tina Theune-Meyer (GER),  FIFA Technical Study Group .