Reigning Olympic champions China were forced to dig deep to overcome Azerbaijan in four sets in their opening Pool B match of the FIVB Volleyball World Championship for Women in Sapporo on Tuesday.
The pool favourites came out on top 25-23, 24-26, 25-16, 25-22 in a bruising encounter that featured plenty of world-class spikes, desperate defence and clever set-up play from both teams.
The Chinese eventually prevailed after losing the second set as Azerbaijan fought tooth and nail for every point but were unable to turn their toil into victory.
The action was fast and furious as China tried to impose their dominance early but were unable to pull out a significant lead against the feisty Azerbaijan side. After taking a 9-5 lead, Azerbaijan hit back with their star spiker Natalya Mammadova leading their attack.
Azerbaijan clawed back to 18-16 and kept the Chinese players on their toes with some excellent blocking and back-court defence. However, some poor smashing and defensive lapses enabled China to open up a four-point lead at 21-17.
Chinese captain Feng Kun was a key figure for China, producing some clever setting that pulled the Azerbaijan defence from one side of the court to the other. China eventually sneaked the set at 25-23 after Azerbaijan failed to deal with a mid-court smash.
Azerbaijan, sensing they had China's measure, came out with renewed vigour in the second set and took an early 3-1 lead before China fought back to level it at 5-5.
After 13-13, it appeared China's slightly superior physical strength would prevail as they opened up a 17-13 advantage, with Wang Yimei and Yang Hao leading from the front.
But their opponents from the former Soviet state refused to concede, battling back with ferocity and eventually taking the set to deuce before levelling the match at 1-1 with a 26-24 second-set triumph.
Chinese coach Chen Zhonghe needed his players to raise their game before Azerbaijan could take control and they did just that in the third set. Powerful serving and net play helped China to a 16-9 lead in the third as Azerbaijan failed to match the intensity of their second-set performance.
Xu Yunli came up with some brilliant blocking and Wang unleashed some awesome smashes to leave the Azerbaijanis in tatters. China were back in the driving seat as they took the set 25-16.
If China thought the Azerbaijanis had given up the fight, they were proved wrong. Led by Yelena Shabovta and Mammadova, Azerbaijan dominated the early fourth-set battles, edging to an 8-6 lead.
Skipper Feng made sure her teammates stayed focus as she set up a series of spikes for her colleagues to help China battle back to 11-11. Yelena Parkhomenko was becoming increasingly influential for Azerbaijan and her winning spike helped her team take a 16-15 lead into the second time-out.
China's class prevailed, though, as they stayed calm and made fewer mistakes. A blistering serve by Wang Yimei took China to match point and after losing their serve, Yang Hao emerged with a classic smash to win the match for China in one hour, 45 minutes.