Renewed hope for Shang

Despite losing out to Korea DPR by a solitary goal in their final group match, two opening wins over hosts Vietnam and Thailand sent defending champions China through to the last four of this year's AFC Women's Championship, where they will face Japan on Thursday for a place in the final.

Japan is not the ideal opponent for China coach Shang Ruihua, whose team will kick off their Olympic campaign as hosts against Sweden on 6 August in Tianjin, before taking on Canada in the same stadium three days later.

"I would prefer to play Australia in the semi-final, because they play in a similar way to the European and American teams," said the 63-year-old, who took over from Frenchwoman Elisabeth Loisel in March.

Since conceding the title to Korea DPR for the first time at the AFC Women's Championship Chinese Taipei 2001, the Steel Roses have underperformed in continental competitions. They fell to the Koreans again in 2003 before recapturing the championship in 2006, after a penalty shootout victory over hosts Australia in the final.

The AFC Women's Championship Vietnam 2008, understandably, provides China with an excellent chance to prove their status as Asia's best. However, with the Olympic Games kicking off in just two months' time, coach Shang has a different outlook on the competition this time around.

Even before traveling to Ho Chi Minh City, he told, "The Asian Cup is a very good chance for us to test new players and formations in the buildup to the Olympic competition, and we will make the best of it, but we will be also very happy if we defend our title."

Without the usual pressure for results, the coach was even in an easy-going mood when speaking of the match against Japan, a team which China have not defeated over the past four years, their last victory coming in the qualifying campaign for the Women's Olympic Football Tournament Athens 2004, when they overcame Japan 1-0 in the final.

"Japan are technically stronger than us, and they play very well as a team," he said, referring to Japan's 3-0 thrashing of China in the EAFF Championship this March. "However, we can also count on our physical strengths to defeat them."

All four semi-finalists have their own strengths, so we must make the most of ours in order to win.
China coach Shang Ruihua previews the AFC Women's Championship semi-finals

And if China go through to the final, where they will meet the winner of the other semi-final between Australia and Korea DPR, Shang believes they will have an excellent chance. " All four semi-finalists have their own strengths, so we must make the most of ours in order to win."

New blood

The China coach's confidence, however, might have been considered misplaced three months ago, when his charges finished third behind winners Japan and Korea DPR in the EAFF Championship, before suffering three straight losses in the Algarve Cup.

During his two months in charge of the team, Shang, who guided China to the quarter-finals of the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup in 1991, has moulded the dispirited side back into a competitive team. The spine of the team is experienced: captain Li Jie shores up the defence, Bi Yan takes care of the creative job in the midfield, and Han Duan spearheads the attack. But no fewer than five young talents have been injected into the team to complement the old heads.

Standing out among these up-and-comers is 23-year-old striker Xu Yuan, who scored the only goal in China's opening game against hosts Vietnam before finding the net again in her team's 5-1 demolition of Thailand in the second game.

"She is a player who uses her head," China's former scoring great Sun Wen commented over the player. "She has good vision and is very clever in front of goal."

Besides Xu Yuan, a pair of teenagers also broke into the team, with Gu Yasha and Lou Jiahui both supporting the attack from midfield. Lou came close to breaking her international duck against Vietnam, while Gu also impressed in the match against Thailand.

The couple's excellent display didn't go unnoticed, as former China captain Liu Ailing encouraged them in her blog. "They played eagerly and hard and they showed their talents," she wrote. "Given time, they will improve markedly."