Big names bow out
The heat is now really on at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship Russia 2006 as players and fans revel in an enthralling start to the knockout stages.
Excitement and quality football abounded in the four quarter-final matches at Russia 2006, which included the surprisingly emphatic defeat of holders Germany by a 2002 winners the USA. Joining the Germans in bidding farewell to the competition are France, Nigeria and host nation Russia.
Germany relinquish their crown
Having stormed to victory at Thailand 2004 , the Germans got their campaign on Russia soil off to an inauspicious start with a deserved defeat to Korea DPR, but bounced back in style with comprehensive wins over Mexico and Switzerland.
Just as it seemed the German machine was beginning to gather momentum, Maren Meinert's charges found their way barred by old foes the USA in the last eight. In truth, though, the match held few fears. Despite picking up a maximum nine points from their three group games, the US had failed to set pulses racing at Russia 2006, in stark contrast to Germany's goal-heavy performances.
All that would change in the quarter-finals. Two quick-fire first-half goals from the North Americans had Meinert's girls reeling, a blow from which they would never fully recover. Afterwards, a disappointed German coach gave a frank and gracious verdict on the outcome: "We gave our all in the second half and, after getting a goal back, we really believed we could turn the scoreline around. But the United States thoroughly deserved their win."
Meinert's side at least head for home with the distinction of having been the tournament's leading scorers thus far with 16 goals. Anna Blasse and Fatmire Bajramaj proved the most potent with four and three strikes respectively, but great credit for their exploits must go to Simone Laudehr and Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi, whose vision, talent and creative skill ensured their forwards never wanted for goalscoring opportunities.
Their coach, meanwhile, is determined to put the disappointment of the team's early exit behind them. "We've got to start looking ahead now," said Meinert, "because the qualifying phase for the next UEFA Women's Championship gets underway in a month's time. We've got a lot of players who were born in 1988 and we want them to be involved when we compete at the next World Championship two years from now."
Misfiring Danilova fails to inspire hosts
Unfortunately for the fans looking to cheer their local heroes all the way to the final, Russia's bid for glory on home turf faltered at the quarter-final stage against battle-hardened Chinese opponents.
China's physical power and solid team play, allied to flashes of genius from captain Ma Xiaoxu, ensured they were simply too good for Valentin Grishin's outfit, though the Russian coach blamed injuries and fatigue for his side's early exit.
"Knowing the condition of my team, I more or less expected that we would go out against China," Grishin admitted to FIFA.com. "We're still a long way from matching China, where women's football has made significant and very steady progress."
One constant problem throughout the tournament was the team's lack of firepower. Gifted young striker Elena Danilova , scorer of 16 of Russia's 20 goals in the last two editions of the UEFA Women's U-19 Championship, failed to find the back of the net in any of her four games, although she did provide two valuable assists against New Zealand and Australia.
It didn't help that, at the other end of the field, goalkeeper Elena Todua was far from her usual assured self. The shot-stopper put in a distinctly nervy display against the Chinese, and looked particularly uncomfortable with dealing with high balls.
They may have crashed out at the quarter-final stage once more, just as they did at Thailand 2004 , but the Russians can take a number of positives from this year's competition. The supporters have been magnificent throughout the tournament and the national press has devoted plenty of time and column inches to the team's progress.
The hosting of this World Championship has also given a massive shot-in-the-arm to women's football in the country and helped reinforce the hard work of those involved in the game from grassroots level right up to the national side.
Nigeria, France suffer last-gasp heartbreak
Nigeria's Falconets deserved better in their last-eight clash against Brazil, but their fate would eventually be sealed by two goals from set-pieces.
Going into the game on the back of an 8-0 thrashing of Finland in their final group match, Emmanuel Tetteh Okonkwo's pupils ended up paying dearly for their wastefulness in front of goal against the Auriverdes. With the scores level at 1-1, a rash piece of goalkeeping in the last minute of the game saw the Africans down to ten players, allowing Brazil to grab a last-gasp winner from the resultant free-kick.
The Nigerians will nevertheless go home reasonably pleased with their performances at Russia 2006, where some suspect defending had been spectacularly counter-balanced by a flamboyant brand of attacking play that won them a host of admirers. Should Okonkwo be able to even out the inconsistencies in the side's play, the players' tremendous physical strength and explosive pace going forward will make them opponents to be feared at future tournaments.
For their part, France gave a much-fancied Korea DPR side a very rough ride for 90 minutes of a pulsating encounter, only to crash out thanks to a mistake in injury time. "We came really close to beating Korea, but we lacked a killer touch in front of goal," lamented France coach Stephane Pilard. "We went very close to taking a 2-1 lead after getting the equaliser and we can't miss chances like that in games like these. Nor can we afford to lose our concentration in the last minute."
That said, the French can be proud of their resilient display against a disciplined and pacy North Korean line-up. Louisa Necib caught the eye in the middle of the park, while Laure Boulleau superbly marshalled her fellow defenders against the dangerous raids of Kim Kyong Hwa and Co.
Between the sticks, Sarah Bouhaddi's consistent performances point towards a bright future, and forwards Marie-Laurie Delie and Elodie Thomis were willing front-runners, giving everything for the cause. Their finishing may have left something to be desired at times, but the talented strike duo offer, respectively, the strength and speed to serve France well in years to come.
Carefully masking his disappointment, Pilard preferred to draw positive conclusions from his side's campaign. "The team has underlined the quality it showed at the last two European tournaments, but the World Championship has made it abundantly clear that we need more games at the very highest level, like the ones we played against the United States or Korea," he told FIFA.com.