New stars rise in east

While the host team's qualification for the quarter-finals of China 2007 owes much to established stalwarts like Li Jie and Xie Caixia - scorers of the goals that beat New Zealand on Thursday - the contribution of two emerging talents is also worthy of mention.

Midfielder Song Xiaoli, whose late strike snatched her side victory over Denmark in China PR's opening Group D game, and goalkeeper Zhang Yanru, who came into the side for the New Zealand match, have done their reputations no harm during the past fortnight.

In the case of Song, she became something of an overnight sensation following her spectacular winner from long range against Denmark. However, the path to success has been long and hard for the 27-year-old from Jiangsu province, who is finally reaping the rewards for over a decade of commitment and perseverance. As a youngster, Song showed a keen interest in dance, fencing and athletics before being introduced to football at the age of 11. Her highly developed coordination skills soon became apparent to football coach Yu Jianguo, who later recalled: "Song Xiaoli might not be very tall but she's very nimble, besides being a quick learner. If you teach her a new move, she picks it up in no time at all."

Her continued progress led to a first international call-up in 2000. Despite struggling to establish herself in a senior team dominated by such inspirational figures as Sun Wen and Liu Ailing, Song was determined to prove herself at the highest level. Looking back on that period, she said: "At that time when we had players like Sun Wen, I was probably one of the weakest members in the squad. I went away and quietly worked on my game, and now those seven years of hard effort have finally paid off." A second chance eventually arrived in 2006 with a recall to the China squad by then national coach Ma Liangxing for the Asian Games in Doha.

Song is now keen to repay the faith put in her by current coach Marika Domanski-Lyfors, who put her in the team for this FIFA Women's World Cup. "I'm very grateful to the coach for putting her trust in me," she said. "She's also the one who gave me the opportunity to prove myself on the world stage and for that reason I'll never forget her." Her performances so far suggest Domanski-Lyfors is being rewarded for her judgement and the battling midfielder, nicknamed 'Daredevil' for her fearless approach on the pitch, is gaining attention not only for her football.

Her good looks have also invited attention and her winning smile was clearly in evidence following her decisive intervention in the 3-2 defeat of the Danes. "It's like a dream, I never would have thought I could score such a spectacular goal, let alone at the World Cup," she said afterwards. "I'm so excited that I won't be able to sleep tonight!"

Fast track
If Song has taken a slow road to the top, her team-mate Zhang is on the fast track. The 20-year-old goalkeeper replaced the more experienced Han Wenxia for the New Zealand decider, following the four goals the latter had conceded against Brazil.

Despite Zhang's tender age, there is confidence in the China camp that she can handle the pressure of the world stage following previous impressive displays for her country. As early as 2004, the 1.82m goalkeeper was an instrumental figure in China's qualification for the FIFA U-19 World Championship, notably with her two penalty saves in the shoot-out victory over Korea DPR which propelled her team to the finals. She impressed subsequently in the final tournament in Thailand, where China finished runners-up.

Zhang looked equally assured at the AFC Women's Asian Cup in July 2006 where she stopped two Australian penalties as the Steel Roses won the final on penalties. She then took that form into the FIFA U-20s Women's World Championship where she set a new tournament record of 449 minutes without conceding a goal to help China reach the final. Although they lost heavily to Korea DPR in that final, going down 5-0, Zhang's efforts had already been enough to earn the Silver Ball award for the tournament's second best player behind her team-mate Ma Xiaoxu.

Following the installation as coach of Swede Domanski-Lyfors in March, Zhang was handed a starting berth in the China team during the build-up to this month's finals. Although China went down 2-0 to USA in a warm-up match on 16 June, her composure and shot-stopping ability earned rave reviews in the press. It may not have been enough to earn her the nod for China's opening two games but having stepped off the bench, she is now expected to retain her place going into the knockout rounds, following a clean sheet against New Zealand.

Asked about the likely challenge posed by Norway in Sunday's quarter-final in Wuhan, the young keeper replied calmly: "I'll take the next match as it comes, just as I did my first match. I'm not thinking about it too much." With this cool customer, it seems actions speak louder than words.