Historically FIFA Women's World Cup™ hosts shine in the tournament opener invariably leaving their opponents to play somewhat of a supporting role on the big stage. Indeed, it is a fact borne out in the past editions with all the homes teams - except for Sweden in 1995 - getting off to a winning start.
Canadian fans should be forgiven for taking things for granted when their side entertains China PR in the FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015™ curtain-raiser on 6 June. In their last encounter at USA 2003 the Canadians emerged surprise 1-0 winners as they stormed into the last four in unexpected fashion. More recently, John Herdman's team received a morale-boost when they came from a goal down to edge hosts China in January's Four-Nation Women's Tournament.
While even their own supporters have realistic expectations for the opening game, China midfielder Gu Yasha is adamant her side have a fair chance of achieving success against Canada. The left-winger, who is still only 24-years-old, says the key for the young squad’s hopes of success lies with preparation.
"It is a fifty-fifty affair (against Canada) and it is really down to finishing ability," Gu, one of the few players from China's Beijing 2008 Olympic side remaining in Tao Wei's squad, recently told FIFA.com. "It should be an evenly contested match so both teams will be able to carve out their chances. The team with better form will win."
Gu scored as China took a first-half lead in the aforementioned friendly. However, the Canadians came to life after the restart to record a comeback victory with veteran striker Christine Sinclair twice on target. Despite the result, Gu said that the match gave them a good chance to prepare against their looming opponents.
"Our coach asked us to do the post-match homework, watching the replay, reflecting on our performance and drawing analysis on a powerpoint document. So we will employ a proper game plan next time. Canada are spearheaded by a series of experienced players and each of them has her own strengths. But still they have shortcomings and we can find chinks in the armour."
Those following her game closely are aware that the softly-spoken player is known for battling qualities. In her debut FIFA tournament at Beijing 2008, the then teenager was substituted on after the interval in the second group match against Canada which ended in a 1-1 draw, before scoring the match-winner against Argentina which sealed their place in the last eight.
Three months later, the in-form player represented China at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup Chile 2008. Hot off her Olympic performances, Gu twice hit the crossbar in the opener only to see the spoils shared in a goalless stalemate against Argentina. But a 2-0 loss to France proved costly as they went out despite defeating USA by an identical scoreline in the group concluder.
"We are a young team and I think my role should be to help my team with my experience," she said. "Being a seven-year national team player means that I have greater responsibility on my shoulders. These young players are confident and eager to mount a challenge in the Women's World Cup so there should be no such thing as stage fright. We will take the game to our opponents, not afraid of making mistakes while trying to avoid making mistakes."
A good result against the hosts will stand them in good stead as they seek to progress from the group which also features Netherlands and New Zealand, a team against whom they won 2-0 at China 2007. "This New Zealand team has improved greatly" Gu added. "But we are capable of competing against them. The Netherlands are an unfamiliar side and we should stick to our playing style against them."
With explosive acceleration and pace, it is natural that Gu Yasha is likened to Zhao Lihong, a legend of the Steel Roses' golden generation who dazzled viewers through her lightning runs down the flank. But the modest youngster said there is much work to do if she is to reach a higher level.
"Zhao Lihong is a right winger and I attack from the left," she said. "Speed is one of my strengths although I have never tested how fast I run over 100 metres. Recently I have been deployed more often as a centre-forward than a winger. When I go forward, I am faster (than the rival defenders). Of course, I should work harder."