Team China's form courts criticism

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No longer an all-conquering force, China's celebrated women's volleyball team is battling against challenges on and off the court, with its Olympic qualifying hopes hanging by a thread.

Coach Cai Bin reacts as outside hitter Wu Mengjie falls to the ground during China's straight-sets loss to Italy in the FIVB Women's Volleyball Nations League on Sunday in Macao. [Photo/Xinhua]

Even with superstar spiker Zhu Ting back on the roster, the Chinese women's team still struggled to bring out its best at the second leg of the Volleyball Nations League last week.

Two losses at the second stop in Macao, particularly the defeat to direct Asian rival Japan on Friday, have dragged Team China out of the driver's seat in the continental race to Paris, with its East Asian neighbor having leapfrogged to No 4 in the league's overall ranking. China has to settle for 7th following a rout by 3rd-ranked Italy on Sunday.

The remaining five Olympic participants, in addition to six already qualified teams and the host's direct entry, will be decided by the rankings at the end of the third and final round of league competition on June 16.

Setting aside its lofty ambitions of extending its Olympic success in Paris, Team China will have to focus on the more imminent battle against Bulgaria on June 11, when the final week of action kicks off in Hong Kong.

The home squad will then face Germany, challenge world No 1 Turkiye before going up against European champion Poland to complete the high-stakes final leg, with no choice but to win as many matches as possible in a bid to outrank Japan at the final buzzer.

Now it seems a taller task than many had expected, underlined by the squad's subpar performances under head coach Cai Bin in Macao, where the team's lack of fight, and especially its poor defensive effort, has left fans fuming at Cai's controversial tactics.

His conservative use of Zhu, nicknamed "Zhuper" for her explosive attack, has drawn harsh criticism from fans and commentators alike.

Rejoining Team China for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, Zhu, who had claimed to be healthy and motivated again when announcing her return in April, fell out of Cai's starting lineup for three of the four matches in Macao. She only played significant minutes in China's 3-0 win over Thailand, while being sidelined during the majority of the other three matches against the Netherlands, Japan and Italy.

Although apparently not in peak form, Zhu, a 1.98-meter tall outside hitter who led Team China to a golden finish at the 2016 Rio Olympics, remains one of the world's most feared scorers in the game, even after a lengthy recovery from a serious wrist injury took its toll on her strength during a three-year break from the national program.

Fully rested and recovered, Zhu has reigned supreme again at club level, driving Florence-based Savino Del Bene Scandicci, which signed her in July 2022, to the finals of the 2024 Italian women's league in April. It's yet another highlight in her overseas career, which began with a stellar stint at Turkish club Vakifbank Istanbul from 2016-19.

Her threat over the net showed in her only start, against Thailand, as Zhu scored 17 points — including one from a block — alongside 23 from the league's No 3 attacker Li Yingying, to help dismantle the Thai defense.

What seemed, and is statistically proven, to be an intimidating combo, Zhu and Li, however, were rarely fielded together at the Macao meet by Cai, leaving him the target of discontent from die-hard Chinese fans.

A video clip went viral on Chinese social media following China's 3-0 loss to Italy on Sunday that captured a large group of fans mobbing Team China's bus and shouting "Cai Bin dismissed!"

The 57-year-old, who took over the struggling national program in February 2022 following its worst ever Olympic campaign in Tokyo under Lang Ping, has not publicly responded to doubts over his tactics.

"I've no idea, just ask coach Cai later," Li dodged a question about player selection after the loss to Italy, adding that it was the lack of attention to detail that cost China against the European powerhouse.

Zhu had also expressed her own dissatisfaction with the team's overall execution after the 3-1 loss to Japan.

"The Japan team is strong. Some of its players are not too tall, but they play as a team," Zhu said in English during a courtside interview after the match.

"With our team, the defense is so bad. No defense, no blocks and no attack. If we lose, of course, yes, we played badly," said Zhu, who scored only six points during her few minutes as a substitute in the fourth set.

With no time left for a radical change, it's time for the veterans to step up and take more responsibility, said former team captain Hui Ruoqi.

"The current team lacks cooperation and communication when facing critical points, or in tough moments," said Hui, a formidable outside hitter on Team China's gold-winning squad at the Rio Olympics who retired in 2018.

"We rely too much on individual plays. The declining defensive threat from our blocking is another issue that needs to be improved," she said as a guest commentator on China Central Television.

A winner of three Olympic tournaments (1984, 2004 and 2016), the Chinese women's team failed to advance into the knockout stage in Tokyo, finishing the pandemic-delayed Games with its worst result since China's Olympic volleyball debut at Los Angeles in 1984.

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