Team China celebrates its 1-0 World Cup Group B victory over South Africa at Parc des Princes in Paris on June 13, 2019. (Photo: Agencies)
China's Steel Roses got off the mark at the FIFA Women's World Cup on Thursday, shooting down their critics and rumors of a rift between head coach Jia Xiuquan and star player Wang Shuang in the process.
In a dominant display that lacked only for more goals, a first-half volley from striker Li Ying proved enough to earn the points against South Africa at Parc des Princes in Paris.
The 1-0 win leaves China third in Group B, level on points with second-place Spain to set up a mouthwatering showdown between the two teams on Monday (Tuesday morning Beijing time), when a spot in the knockout stage will be up for grabs.
Wang's omission from the starting XI (she was eventually introduced after the interval) in the opening 1-0 loss to Germany had raised eyebrows and sparked speculation on social media that the Paris Saint-Germain star had somehow fallen out with coach Jia.
However, she was restored to the lineup on Thursday and, after a solid if unspectacular display, was keen to rubbish talk of discord within the squad.
"I've said that I was not satisfied with my recent performances and my condition, so I'm grateful to coach Jia for letting me play," said the 24-year-old, who is expected to leave PSG this summer and return to play in China.
"I even felt that I didn't meet his expectations. As he said, I could have set up more attacks. After I joined up with Team China from Paris, the team and the coaches have been helping and supporting me.
"I know that I'm not in top condition. Coach Jia and the other coaches have been giving me special help after each training session.
"During the past year, coach Jia has made great efforts to help the team, and we all recognize that. He's like a father to the team. He's all for the good of the team. I wish the media and fans would not indulge in such speculation."
Jia declared himself generally pleased with the performance but lamented China's lack of ruthlessness up front.
"I think my players should have been better at seizing the chances at the critical moments and should have been more calm. For the next game, the team needs to improve control of the ball," said Jia.
"I hope that the players can exhibit their true ability. Their desire to win has impressed me the most over the last year and I've been deeply moved and encouraged by this.
"I think they've done a great job today. And I think this is also a manifestation of their mentality. They want to win."
Jia, an esteemed coach with 20 years' experience in the men's game, took the reins last year, steering his squad to a runner-up finish at the Asian Games in Indonesia.
He has set lofty targets for his team in France, suggesting the Steel Roses could rekindle their glory days, when the Chinese squads returned from the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup with silver medals.
"Our goal is to reach the final of the World Cup, and we want to go even further and win the championship," the 56-year-old said before the tournament kicked off.
"I know it sounds much more reasonable for us to aim for a quarterfinal finish, however I want my players to dream bigger and then go all out to achieve the highest goal possible."
Now, Spain, which defeated South Africa 3-1 in its opener, stands between China and a place in the knockout rounds, with the top two teams in each group and the four best third-place finishers qualifying for the last 16.
Chinese women's soccer legend Sun Wen reckons China's best chance of victory lies in absorbing Spanish pressure and hitting them on the counterattack.
"We need to rely on our defense. The team has done a great job in keeping its defensive shape," said Wen, a veteran of the vintage '96 and '99 sides. "Improving the counterattack and finishing will be key if China wants to go further in the tournament. Stay focused and keep fighting as a group."