European elite gather in Swedish sun
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It is one of the longest running hegemonies in world football. Germany’s 20-year grip on the European crown is, however, set to come under greater threat than it has done at any stage over the past two decades.

The 2013 UEFA Women’s EURO commences on Wednesday in Sweden with the 12-nation tournament concluding on 28 July in Solna. Whether Germany are lifting the trophy in just under three weeks remains to be seen, but should Silvia Neid’s side retain their crown it will surely rank as one of their greatest triumphs. Six squad members have been forced to miss a summer trip to Sweden with the absentees including defenders Babett Peter and Verena Faisst, midfielder Viola Odebrecht, the versatile Linda Bresonik, plus two heroines of the 2010 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup triumph; Alexandra Popp and Kim Kulig.

Women’s football has grown at an incredible speed over the past decade meaning a levelling of the field, and the rise of several major challengers to Germany’s crown. Whatever occurs over the coming weeks, the quality and intensity of the tournament is assured. Similarly off the field it seems Sweden, one of the traditional strongholds of the women’s game, will be a more than fitting host. As Sweden captain Caroline Seger observed about the tournament build-up, “it feels like there's something big happening.”

Swedes set to impress
Group A is headlined by Sweden who are aiming to join a list of four previous host nations to win on home soil. It is however, a feat that has not been achieved since Germany did so 12 years ago. The Swedes will be looking to cast aside memories of 2009 when a quarter-final exit made for the Blagult’s worst performance of the past 20 years. Much focus too will be on Pia Sundhage, with the 2012 FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year featuring in her first major tournament in charge of her home nation since concluding a hugely successful stint with USA.

The group is arguably the most even with four-time semi-finalists Denmark a perennial threat. A reinvigorated Danish side has a handful of talented youngsters eager to prove their worth after a surprise failure to reach the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup™. Italy, led by 1982 FIFA World Cup™-winner Antonio Cabrini, have eschewed lead-up matches in favour of a lengthy training camp. The enigmatic Italians have talent to burn in attack, which is spearheaded by the tournament’s oldest player; the still-prolific Patrizia Panico. Finland go into the tournament with injuries to key players in what is a major blow for a side who have suffered several defeats already this year

Big guns primed to fire
It remains to be seen if Germany’s squad - relatively inexperienced by their own lofty standards - feel the weight of expectation or flourish because of it. The statistics are certainly staggering. Germany have won 19 consecutive matches at the tournament dating to 1997, while their unbeaten run stretches for 26 matches all the way back to 1993. Striker Celia Okoyino da Mbabi, who was the continent’s top scorer during qualifying, believes the change in personnel opens up fresh opportunities: “It is a huge opportunity for the team to show what it is capable of, and players who might not have featured in different circumstances can make headlines.”

Arguably the biggest challenge to the champions in Group B is presented by Norway who, boosted by a string of richly talented teenagers, are a side on the up. Under wily veteran coach Even Pellerud, Norway have had some mixed results recently, but notably defeated Japan en route to third place at the prestigious Algarve Cup earlier this year. Netherlands and Iceland, both of whom made their debut four years ago, also feature in the group with the pair having proven themselves capable of matching the best on their day.

France seek breakthrough
Following consecutive semi-final eliminations at Germany 2011 and last year’s Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, it seems that 2013 is France’s opportunity to take the next step. Defender Laure Boulleau says Les Bleues have a “good chance” of success in Sweden. “We have the fanbase, our matches are shown on television, and there is enthusiasm among the French public,” said the France full-back. “The only thing missing is a trophy. If we won that would be a turning point as it would be bigger than anything that has happened before.”

Russia coach Sergey Lavrentiev called Group C the hardest of the three and he may have a point, with England and rising force Spain among the quartet. England have experience in abundance and will harbour genuine hopes of going one better than a runners-up finish four years ago. Following a 16-year hiatus from the European stage Spain, and star player Veronica Boquete, are hoping to demonstrate their progress. “We think this is the moment Spain can take this step,” said Boquete. “Presenting ourselves to the world as the men's team did.”