When the sun begins to shine in Portugal, it means the European spring cannot be far away - and with it the warm-up tournaments for the start of the women's football season. The world's elite were again all present at the Algarve Cup, as of course was FIFA.com to round up all the news from this prestigious tournament.
By the end of the event, it was clear that the Scandinavian nations are once again a force to be reckoned with, while Olympic champions USA are still the team to beat. For their part, FIFA Women's World Cup™-winners Germany look to have a few teething troubles as they bring in their younger generation of players with a view to winning their third title in a row at the Germany 2011.
Those were the main conclusions that could be drawn from a tournament which Sweden won 5-4 on penalties against the USA, with Denmark squeezing past Germany 1-0 in the third place match. This victory puts the Swedes among the favourites for this year's UEFA European Women's Championship, being held in Finland from 23 August-10 September.
A new record and a bittersweet landmark
This was Sweden's first success in Portugal since 2001, with the USA, who currently sit atop the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women's World Ranking and have former Sweden star Pia Sundhage at the helm, winning the previous two Algarve Cups. Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby has star striker Lotta Schelin in his ranks, while Victoria Svensson set a new record for her country in the final when she played her 158th international. For her opponent Heather Mitts, however, it was a bittersweet occasion - she won her 100th cap in the final but sent the decisive penalty over the bar.
While it seems that Sweden have put their rollercoaster ride of recent years behind them, Germany look to have some tougher times ahead. With Birgit Prinz, Kerstin Stegemann, Ariane Hingst, Annike Krahn and Simone Laudehr all absent from Portugal through injury, it was brought home to coach Silvia Neid that her younger players will need a little more time before they can fill the boots of the golden generation. One youngster who did come out of the tournament with an enhanced reputation, however, is 18-year-old Kim Kulig, who easily stepped up to senior international level after being the lynchpin of the German team at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup 2008 in Chile.
Goalkeeper Nadine Angerer was managing expectations as she looked ahead to the coming season. "The younger ones have seen that they aren't yet ready to be heroes. We can't expect them to step up and win the Euro this year - they still need time to develop," explained the 30-year-old hero of the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007 in China, where she kept a clean sheet in every match and saved a penalty from Brazilian legend Marta in the final.
Solo shines, Norway disappoint
Another goalkeeper stole the headlines at the Algarve Cup 2009, namely USA's Hope Solo, who impressed more and more as the competition went on and was voted tournament best player at the end.
The Algarve Cup continues to attract the world's top teams, and its enduring competitiveness was again in evidence this year with giants China PR only managing fifth spot, after beating Iceland 2-1 in that particular play-off. Euro hosts Finland took seventh with a 5-3 win on penalties over locals Portugal, while Norway, who flattered to deceive throughout the tournament, salvaged some pride in beating Austria 2-0 for ninth place. Poland meanwhile avoided the wooden spoon and condemned Wales to last spot with their 2-1 win in the 11th place match.
The tournament also demonstrated how little there is separating Europe's top teams. With the EURO coming up later this year and the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2011, there is plenty to look forward to in women's football.