In many ways, it was the same old story at the UEFA Women's EURO. There was the odd minor scare, but Germany's vice-like grip on the continental title never really looked like being relinquished.
Yet although there was an element of predictability to the world champions' fifth successive European crown, this was a tournament that offered more encouraging signs about the rising levels of skill and entertainment in the female game ahead of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup™. The final, a pulsating contest that was a great deal closer than the 6-2 scoreline might suggest, was typical of the fare on offer, with fans at the Finnish showpiece treated to plenty of individual flair and outstanding goals.
Hope Powell's England were worthy finalists too, and proved along with the likes of Italy and the Netherlands that they are now just as big a threat to Germany's dominance as the traditionally powerful Nordic nations. Yet there could only be one winner, and the style with which Sylvia Neid's team swept to the title underlined that the Germans will be the team to beat when they host the world finals in two years' time.
Grings back with a bang
With over 1400 caps between them, this was an experienced German squad that relied heavily on some familiar faces, from Nadine Angerer in goals through Kerstin Garefrekes in midfield to the evergreen Birgit Prinz in attack. Intriguingly, however, Prinz went into the final without having scored in any of the earlier rounds, and smarting from criticism in the German media that suggested her powers were on the wane.
Typically, the doubters were answered in emphatic fashion as the German captain scored twice in a vintage performance, suggesting that this veteran of four FIFA Women's World Cups will still be a force to be reckoned with at her fifth. Yet even Prinz would admit that her contribution in Finland was overshadowed by that of her strike partner. Inka Grings' talent has never been in question - indeed, she finished top scorer at the last EURO - but some messy off-the-field issues ensured that she spent the intervening years in the international wilderness.
Now, at 30, Grings is back, seemingly better than ever, with a double in the final helping the Duisburg striker to a six-goal haul and an unprecedented second top scorer award. "It couldn't be better for me and the whole team," she enthused after yesterday's final. "It was an incredible game and a dream came true after all the personal setbacks over the last few years. We played like real world champions."
And Grings was by no means the only standout for a German team whose strength in depth was underlined by the fact that eight of their 18 goals leading up to the final were scored by substitutes. Neid will have been encouraged that three of those goals came from Fatmire Bajramaj, the glamour girl of German football who showed signs that she is ready to cast off the 'promising' tag and play a major role in her side's defence of their world title. Arguably even more heartening were the dynamic performances of Kim Kulig, who though still just 19, showed why she is already a regular starter at the heart of the German midfield.
Kulig is one to watch in 2011, and DFB president Theo Zwanziger admitted that the focus of everyone in German women's football has already turned to the global showpiece. "I think this title will help us promote 2011," he said. "People could see today that this team is capable of winning the World Cup. Our ambitions are high and the team sent out a strong message."
Dutch delight as Swedes slump
England, despite a shock 3-2 defeat to Italy in their opening match, were undoubtedly the best of the rest. The energy and creativity of Karen Carney, who registered more assists than anyone else in Finland, was a major feature of their play, while the emergence of the speedy Eniola Aluko alongside Kelly Smith suggested Hope Powell's team will be genuine contenders at Germany 2011.
Another team who recovered from an early blow to impress were Norway. They went all the way to the last four, in fact, thanks to a superb 3-1 quarter-final win over Sweden, although the conclusion of the tournament brought the end of an era as coach Bjarne Berntsen stepped aside to be replaced by Eli Landsem. Elsewhere, Melania Gabbiadini impressed for the ever-improving Italians, while the Netherlands emerged as the tournament's surprise packages, marching all the way to the semi-finals, eliminating France en route, before succumbing to an extra time defeat at the hands of England.
All told, this latest EURO was as enjoyable as it was encouraging. It has also served merely to whet the appetite for the feast of women's football coming our way in less than two years' time.