Germany claimed an opening victory in their Group B game against China in the 2019 Women’s World Cup through a wonderful Giulia Gwinn strike, but it wasn’t plain sailing for the Europeans in Rennes.
From the first kick of the game, Germany looked to assert their dominance over the Chinese team, but were faced with an unexpectedly feisty and physical opposition.
The Steel Roses were not afraid to go flying into challenges, much to the frustrations of a number of German players – particularly Alexandra Popp, who found herself repeatedly targeted.
Germany struggled to cope and settle against that battling Chinese approach, and despite their control over the ball, it was those donned in red that fashioned the first real chance of the game.
An awful mistake by German defender Sara Doorsoun saw her play a loose ball across the field at the back, which was easily picked off by China and gifted the opponents a dangerous attack. Luckily for Doorsoun, Gu Yasha delayed her strike too long, before playing in Yang Li and the Wolfsburg defender was able to get back and recover brilliantly with a crucial block.
It was a wake up call for the Germans, though.
Carolin Simon almost gave Germany the lead shortly after when a wicked cross she fired in almost found its way directly in, smacking against the crossbar of Peng Shimeng’s goal.
The physical contest continued, with Popp taking another firm blow before China themselves lost a player through injury. Lou Jiahui was unable to run off a foot injury – and in between being quite comically (and thankfully for the officials given it let Germany attack instead, uncontroversially) body checked by the referee – was forced off the field in an early substitution.
Doorsoun again late in the half was guilty of playing a careless ball across the back four of Germany and seeing it picked off, and this time Yang Li was released by a sublime ball, only to see her curling effort cannon against the upright.
The second half went much the same way the first had ended, with Germany still comfortably in the ascendancy, but yet still lacking that crucial goal. China continued to press and physically bully the German players – a clear tactical decision – and committed foul after foul, collecting a slew of yellow cards in the process.
Popp and her teammates continued to grow increasingly frustrated, with tempers even spilling over on one occasion – a much more rare sight in the women’s game, compared with the men’s.
Finally, however, after winning a careless corner kick from China courtesy of a poor defensive touch, Germany made the breakthrough they needed.
China once again defended the initial ball well, heading clear to the edge of the box, but Gwinn was on hand to collect and smash home a superb strike through the Chinese legs and beyond the diving glove of Peng.
Gwinn had been one of Germany best and most creative players throughout the match, and the confidence and joy was clear on her face as the ball struck the back of the net. Collectively, the German fans and players could breathe a small sigh of relief.
China weren’t done yet, determined to continue to spoil the party and get something for their efforts. With eight minutes to go on the clock, they almost did too after earning a rare set piece from the Germans.
Swung into the box, their European opponents couldn’t successfully deal with the ball and China looked to force an opening but, when it was finally swept at goal by Zhang Rui, the ball could only sail over the bar.
The full time whistle saw the result confirmed and Germany happily secure their first three points of this Women’s World Cup group stage, but it wasn’t an easy game for the European side.
China fought them to the end, and perhaps worryingly for coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, the Steel Roses exposed some real defensive frailties among her side. Much of the Chinese side’s most dangerous play came not from their own creative moves but rather poor mistakes at the back from the Germans.
Added to that, the German players appeared to struggle somewhat to settle in the game against the physicality and roughness imposed by the China players.
It made for an interesting spectacle and one that Germany will have plenty to take away from and look to improve upon on the training pitch ahead of their next game.
However, ultimately, they still walk away from Rennes with the crucial three points and their tournament campaign well under way.
For China, meanwhile, it was a tough, battling display they put on but they leave empty-handed, making their next meeting – against Women’s World Cup newcomers South Africa – that much more important.