In the aftermath of Wednesday night's Women's World Cup quarterfinal at Spartan Stadium, two things are clear: China will face Norway in the semifinals on Sunday in Foxboro, Mass., and Norway, the defending World Cup champion, will have a fight on its hands.
China routed Russia in the first match of its doubleheader here, showing considerable composure. Captain Sun Wen and Liu Ailing were able to play tricks with the ball in the box unhurried, and the Chinese midfield never once broke formation. Getting production from all parts of the lineup, China once again showed why Wang Liping and Jie Bai are not only two of the premier defenders in the women's game, but also top-notch playmakers.
As dominating as a 2-0 win can be, China's performance against Russia signaled both a more mature team and one that is hungry for the championship.
Norway, on the other hand, came out flat against rival Sweden and almost paid dearly for it. Struggling through the first half, Norway's central defensive team of Brit Sandaune and Goril Kringen was exposed repeatedly. Swedish striker Malin Gustafsson did not score, but she gave Norway a number of scares as she swung the ball from right to center, forcing captain Linda Medalen out of position to help.
However, the second half showed why the Norwegians are champions: They tacked on two goals in three minutes -- and in spectacular fashion. The first came in the 53rd minute off the head of Ann-Kristin Aarones.
Marianne Pettersen showed off some dazzling individual skills in the 56th minute when she beat Jane Tornqvist and Asa Lonnqvist and fired a tightly angled shot into the far post.
And star Norwegian playmaker Hege Riise provided an emphatic punctuation mark when she converted a penalty kick in the 72nd minute after Ulrika Karlsson dragged Pettersen down as the last defender. With an injury-time strike from Malin Mostrom, Sweden qualified for the 2000 Summer Olympics; the 3-1 victory gave Norway a berth in the semifinals.
"We didn't play well in the first half," said Norway Coach Per-Mathias Hogmo. "We had a little trouble giving up the ball in the midfield and that let them have too many chances. But I'm pleased with our morale and our second-half performance."
Hogmo may be hoping the Chinese weren't paying attention. Off these two matches, China revealed few weaknesses while Norway seemed to age with every step.
"We're very stable," said Ma Yuanan, China's coach. "This game is about tactics, strategy and mental poise. It's a matter of life and death. We're not going back to Beijing just yet; we're going to fight."
It is clear that Norway has to answer that poise with something more than brute force; to date, the Norwegians have relied on the abilities of Medalen, Riise, Aarones and Unni Lehn to create chances. Sweden, however, showed that Lehn could be taken out of the game by forcing her toward the middle of the field.
"It's going to be tough," said Hogmo. "They always are. But we are prepared."
CAPTION: Norway's Marianne Pettersen, right, exhibited her skills with a goal in Wednesday's 3-1 victory over Sweden.