Group B: China PR a class apart
Football isn't a sport in which justice is always served and the best teams prosper, but in Group B at Russia 2006, everyone got what they deserved.
China PR's record of three wins from three certainly did not flatter a side who arguably possess the tournament's best player in Ma Xiaoxu , and ultimately it was the Asian champions' superior class that told against three determined opponents.
At the other end of the table, by contrast, Finland battled valiantly but couldn't disguise the fact that strength in depth is painfully, and understandably, lacking in their hard-working squad.
1. China PR, 9 pts
When China fell behind to Finland within 60 seconds of their opening match kicking off, eyebrows were raised as we wondered if Shang Ruihua's position as group favourites was unjustified. Needless to say, such doubts proved short-lived.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Asian champions is that, since conceding that early goal - an own goal at that - not only has the impressive Zhang Yanru never been beaten, but she has rarely even looked in danger. Canada coach Ian Bridge, having watched his side continually knock at the Chinese door only be refused entry each time, felt compelled to say of Shang's side: "Defensively, they are certainly one of the best - if not the best - teams that I've ever seen at this level."
Of course, it's not only in defence that China are formidable. Up front, they have a special player in Ma Xiaoxu, a striker with such a wide range of attributes that many already consider her among the best in the women's game - and without equal at this level. China's coach , meanwhile, makes no attempt to disguise his ambitions. Asked whether the achievement of reaching the final in 2004 can be surpassed this time around, he replied succinctly: "It should be this way, yes."
2. Nigeria, 6pts
They might be well-established as the dominant force in African women's football, but ahead of Russia 2006, few were to be found tipping Nigeria to split the beaten finalists from the tournament's past two editions. However, what Canada found to their cost in the sides' opening game is that the Falconets not only boast all the traditional attributes associated with African sides - pace, power, athleticism and skill - but also possess the mental strength that many have been adjudged to lack.
By turning a one-goal deficit into a one-goal lead in the final eight minutes against the Canucks, Emmanuel Tetteh Okonkwo's side put themselves on the front foot from the very first match, and though they were subsequently taught a harsh football lesson by a crafty, counter-attacking Chinese team, never did they lose control over their destiny.
In the end, qualification was stylishly secured with an awesome 8-0 pounding of Finland that showcased the impressive range of attacking options available to Okonkwo. Winger Cynthia Uwak, scorer of the two late goals that put paid to Canada, is an obvious stand-out, as is fellow forward Maureen Eke, and though Christy Bulus' goalkeeping can be erratic, captain Akudo Sabi ensures the defence in front of her is always well-marshalled.
3. Canada, 3pts
"We're sad to be leaving because we had aspirations to go further." So said Canada coach Ian Bridge after his side succumbed to a fate that always looked likely from the moment Uwak headed home Nigeria's injury-time winner in the sides' opening match.
The North Americans bounced back in their next match with a 2-0 win over Finland in which Jodi-Ann Robinson excelled, but their final test always looked to be the most imposing, and so it proved. Bridge's changes in tactics and personnel were successful in allowing his side to match up physically to the powerful Chinese, but they also contributed to both sides cancelling each other out in a tight game of precious few chances.
In the end, it was left to Ma to confirm her reputation as the group's most accomplished player with the solitary, all-important goal, and though Bridge could be comforted by individual displays from the likes of Robinson, Loredana Riverso and Amanda Cicchini, he would doubtless admit that it was no injustice that his side exited the tournament so early.
4. Finland, 0 pts
For all his players' understandable pre-tournament enthusiasm , Finland coach Jarmo Matikainen was always realistic about the underdogs' prospects and will not have been surprised to see them finish the tournament without a point to their name.
"We're a small country, this is our first ever world championship in women's football, and it's an achievement for us just to be here," remained his mantra throughout and, though his side's heroic performance against China was better than he expected and their collapse against Nigeria a little worse, Matikainen's players generally performed to expectations.
Prior to picking up the illness that ruled her out of the Finns' second game and left her looking tired and out of sorts for their third, Linda Sallstrom did prove herself to be a quick and dangerous player capable of operating at the highest level, but a lack of supply to his star striker looks likely to be an ongoing challenge for Matikainen to address.