As soon as she caught sight of a figure limping and trudging slowly ahead, Su Fei rushed towards it.
"Where's Yang Pan?"
"That bastard! Hoes before bros! Some girl wrote him a letter asking him out, so he bailed… Ah? Su Fei?" Zhang Jun turned to her, slightly taken aback. "Isn't the team training after school today?"
"Coach told everyone to get some rest for the day."
"And I was wondering how Yang Pan would have time to go for a date!"
"Is your leg hurting a lot?"
"What do you think?" Zhang Jun continued limping and trudging forward.
All of a sudden, Su Fei grabbed Zhang Jun's arm and slung it over her shoulder, while her other hand held his waist.
"Don't move! It'll hurt even more if you move!"
As if on cue, another agonizing pang throbbed in his right foot and Zhang Jun could only accept Su Fei's "authority" obediently.
"How embarrassing!" Zhang Jun snorted. "Being carried by a girl."
"Thanks for your birthday present," Su Fei said quietly.
On the northern side of the school, Mudan Square.
"That's weird, it's supposed to be here!" Yang Pan looked at his watch for the umpteenth time. "It's almost been an hour. Why is the girl Su Fei told me about not here yet?
Li Yongle slammed the magazine down. With a gloomy face, he said to the other two, "How can this be?! How can he get injured? And at such a pivotal moment!"
"It says that he was given great 'care' by the opponent." Zhang Yang pointed at the magazine.
"He's a national champion who's won the title of 'best player'. Do you think a striker like him is gonna fall so easily?" Li Yongle frowned.
"Well, could it be a faked injury?" Zhang Yang offered.
"Is there a need to fake it?" Zhang Lintao countered.
Zhang Yang thought about it and shook his head. "Seems like there isn't."
"Whatever the case may be, it's still unknown if he's gonna play in the next match. You guys, I've waited for him for half a year and I've finally come to this day. But, he's going to miss the game due to an injury. What's this? It's like when a bride enters her bridal chamber to find that the bridegroom isn't there!"
"That doesn't seem to be an appropriate analogy," Zhang Lintao replied.
Li Yongle blushed.
"Ah, don't imitate others at using rhetorics if you're bad at the language!" Zhang Yang added.
"Mind your own business!"
Due to Zhang Jun's injury, Liang Ke started to train the team in a 4-3-3 formation; Ren Yu De and Yang Pan were shifted forward to play as strikers and two defensive players were set up on the midfield. After all, they could not just sit and wait for Zhongyuan to bring the game to them in Zhang Jun's absence.
After the strategy of having three forwards paid off in dividends previously, it made Liang Ke more determined in his decision to adjust the team composition.
"Yang Pan! Don't just keep delivering crosses from the flanks. Shoot as much as you can whenever you get the ball! Doesn't matter from where!" Liang Ke shouted.
"Oh." A long shot hit the bar forcefully.
"Hey! Hey! This is training, there's no need to be that extreme, right?" an alarmed and frightened An Ke told Yang Pan. He felt spooked whenever he recalled the shot his teammate made in the last game, and thought that there was no chance the other keeper would have kept to his task of guarding posts―he would probably shudder the next time he saw another person whirling his feet to shoot.
"From now on, I'm cultivating my hatred of goals and goalkeepers!"
"You mean the other team's goal and goalkeeper?"
An Ke gulped. He could see the killing intent in Yang Pan's eyes; he was not playing around. Silently, he prayed for Zhongyuan's keeper.
The luxurious locker room of Zhongyuan High School's soccer team.
"There are four days left until we play against Shu Guang High School," Sun Laihong said as he turned on the television and tape recorder. "They are good. I hope that everyone keeps this in mind and not underestimate them solely because of their older results―records only prove what transpired in the past, not the future. For today's training, we'll study their video."
The television displayed the match between Bai Ma and Shu Guang. "I specifically requested for someone to record this. It can help provide a full understanding on what sort of team Shu Guang is."
As soon as the match began, Shu Guang immediately started on the front foot and initiated an attack. Wang Bo sent the ball to Yang Pan, who did not make any feints against the defender marking him. In front of the other guy, he merely used his incredible speed to move two paces past him and make a cross.
"You can all see here exactly how fast Yang Pan is. Rumor has it that his 100-m dash record is never more than 11 seconds―and that's a number estimated during his middle school years; I'm guessing he's even quicker now. To have such speed as an ambusher on the flanks is horrifying." Sun Laihong kept rewinding the scene as evidence. "I myself believe that nobody is fast enough to catch up to him. Zhang Yang, you will definitely face him in the next game. Do not give him space to sprint and be careful with your tackles."
"Then, I should just drop him!" Zhang Yang answered.
"Idiot! Do you want to leave the pitch early! His powerful drive should not to be trifled with either. It's reported to hit speeds of 180 km/h, although I haven't seen it other than through journalistic accounts. But, it's better to believe such things than to doubt its existence. Best be cautious. Zhang Lintao, do you have any ideas?"
"There are ways to stop his shots, but they can't be used frequently. I'm confident that I can keep nine of his shots out, but when it comes to the tenth…"
"Don't think of us defenders as being so incompetent!" Luo Bin snapped at the top-choice keeper. "How could we give him 10 chances to shoot in one game!"
"Whatever the case may be, Yang Pan has only fired two long shots over the last few games. It seems that they intend to use it against us. In short, be aware." Sun Laihong kept the tape rolling.
The scene was the moment where Shu Guang conceded a goal.
"The flaw of this team is as obvious as their strength; they are bad at defending. While they did not concede against the team that had a defensive play in the second match, they conceded in each of the other two games. It wasn't because their goalkeeper was incompetent―An Ke is an outstanding goalie―it's simply because their back line isn't very good. Even a team as average as Bai Ma High School could score against them, which clearly illustrates the problem. Our strikers and midfielders need to create as much confusion as possible among their back line to create scoring opportunities."
The next scene showed Ren Yu De. He was running into the box and getting past four defenders, who were guarding him before equalizing the score.
"Defenders, you also need to pay some attention to this guy. He's only played football for a year in middle school, but he was cut off the team for getting into a fight. However, his technique is considerably good. In their encounter against Nanyang, he alone managed to mince that prided defense of theirs. Still, his physical strength is sub-par. Liu Chao, I'll leave him to you."
"Don't worry, Coach!"
In that moment, the screen replayed the exact moment when Yang Pan scored. Even through the television, the ball traveled in a flash as it thumped into the net just next to the keeper's face. The pitch boiled.
The entire locker room went quiet, save for the sounds of the TV set.
After what felt like half a day, Zhang Lintao finally spoke, "I hate to admit it… But, if he was allowed to shoot at that distance, I would definitely not be able to stop it... It's too fast..."
When he spoke, Li Yongle noticed that something had changed in Zhang Lintao's voice―the keeper had always been very confident.
Even Luo Bin, who just argued with Zhang Lintao added with a rather low voice, "If he does that in the next match to… No way! There's no way he'll be allowed into the penalty area!"
"It's a pity then. He could very well play as a striker in the next game. Zhang Jun's unexpected injury has moved him to the striker's position," Zhao Defeng said, looking at the screen.
"The status of Zhang Jun's injury isn't clear. There's no telling if he'll be playing against us. However, there's no doubt that he is a threat. His acceleration in 5 to 15 m is even faster than Yang Pan's; and in the small range of the penalty area, that speed can leave anyone behind. That's why he must never be allowed inside the box, much less be allowed to turn! If he plays this Saturday, you'll be watching him, Li Yongle."
Li Yongle nodded.
"So, only those four first year students in Shu Guang require some attention," Zhang Yuchao said as he leaned back in his chair with both hands cupping the back of his head. "The others aren't even worth mentioning!"
"No," Sun Laihong replied. "Their No. 10, Wang Bo is another capable player. He can execute his coach's orders to the letter, and there are times when his runs into the box are threatening."
"And then there's their captain, Su Li, No. 8," Zhao Defeng added. "He's a very stubborn fellow and he managed to crumble Shui Huajun's will in the first round. His skills are a bit rough, he isn't tall and he's average in the strength department. However, he possesses nerves of steel―a fitting choice for a captain!"
"It's rare to hear our captain singing praises of another!" Li Qiang laughed. "How lucky are our ears!"
"I'm just telling it as it is," Zhao Defeng answered. "I don't know if I can even last 80 minutes against his style of defending…"
"Hey! Even our captain is losing confidence!" Li Qiang teased.
"I'm just telling it as it is."
"Ah! Your personality really makes people speechless…"
"I don't think we have much to worry about," Zhang Yuchao offered. "As long as we can decide the game in the first half, we can play around with them in the second!"
"That's enough," Sun Laihong interrupted the bickering. "Whatever the case may be, we will play our soccer. No opposition will find a way to stop our advances. Tell me loudly, what is Zhongyuan's soccer?"
"Victory!" everyone answered in unison.
"Very good! Dismissed!"
"I have a question." Zhang Jun looked at Su Fei, who was holding him up.
"Why is Yang Pan running off as soon as training ends every day? He doesn't even stop when he's called."
"You didn't know? I heard that his luck with the females has finally come and he's been busy going on dates."
"So that's it. Still, Yang Pan is dense when it comes to girls. Why would a girl suddenly take a liking towards him?"
"Maybe it's after seeing his performance on the soccer pitch."
"That's right! That kid's absolutely cool. Although, really, having you carry me home every day, that guy is totally putting hoes before bros! I'll never forgive him!"
"Hehe! It's nothing."
Some distance away.
"Ah-choo!" Someone sneezed loudly.
The players were having shooting drills on the training ground. Li Yongle's shot inside the penalty area clung to the ground and rolled wide off the posts.
Sun Laihong asked Zhao Defeng, who was beside him, "Do you notice anything?"
"You're talking about Li Yongle's shooting?"
"Correct, Li Yongle!" The coach waved.
The player ran up to the pair.
"Can you tell us why you prefer ground shots?"
"It's more difficult to be saved by the keeper."
"I see. Come here." Sun Laihong held the ball and carried it to the edge of the penalty box. "Watch carefully."
He then shouted at Zhang Lintao, "Stay on your guard! Don't let up!"
Zhang Lintao responded by getting into his standard preparation pose.
Sun Laihong then started dribbling and right on the line of the penalty area, he raised his foot to shoot. There was nothing special about the shot as the ball left the ground slightly. Zhang Lintao dived elegantly, confident that he could stop it.
The ball suddenly dropped in front of Zhang Lintao's hand, bounced once, and went into the net.
"This is…" Li Yongle was slightly shocked.
"A swerve shot," Zhao Defeng explained next to him. "Using either the outer soles or the top of your leg to hit the upper center of the ball. It makes the ball curve without stopping as it flies forward to create a dropping force. If the timing and power is right, the ball will bounce once in front of the keeper and he won't be able to time when the ball is coming precisely, making an error in the process. Basically, these shots can cause a lot of headaches for goalies. In the professional soccer scene, Brazil's Rivaldo was representative of professional players adept at swerve shots."
Zhang Lintao stared speechlessly at the ball inside the net. He had judged the precise point where the ball would fall, its direction and timing, but he never thought that the ball would suddenly drop, bounce and throw him off. What a devious shooting technique!
Sun Laihong turned to Li Yongle. "Just slightly above the level of your ground shot technique, the swerve shot is one of the best methods to fool the keeper. Follow what Zhao Defeng told you, keep training and repeat until you get the idea of where to hit in order to curl the ball. Figure out the timing, the power needed and the direction it should be heading."
Looking at Li Yongle who was training alone against the wall, a puzzled Zhao Defeng asked his coach, "Coach, I don't quite understand. Why are you teaching him this in such a rush?"
"It's nothing. I just hope to see him create such a shot in the match this Saturday."
"Saturday? That's just three days!" The captain was visibly stunned. It was almost impossible to master a shot of such immense difficulty.
Sun Lai Hong smiled. "Just wait and see!"