There may yet be a week-and-a-half before the first whistle sounds at the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, but the tournament's four European entrants will already be well accustomed to the rigours of competitive action by the time they touch down in New Zealand.
After all, as their rivals spend their final few weeks gently limbering up with friendlies and overseas training camps, the old continent's quartet of qualifiers have been embroiled in a taxing campaign to earn a place at their age group's UEFA showpiece. Denmark, in fact, only commenced their continental preliminaries yesterday, and will not conclude their efforts until this Sunday - just 10 days before they lock horns with South American champions Colombia in their opening fixture at New Zealand 2008.
Such a demanding schedule is not necessarily a negative, however. As well as offering Germany, France, England and Denmark's coaches a chance to test the battle-readiness of their charges, these qualifiers have also provided the opportunity for a timely morale-booster before embarking on the mammoth journey to the South Pacific.
Show of strength
Predictably, no team succeeded in grasping that opportunity quite as decisively as the Germans. Ralf Peter's side coasted to victory in the inaugural edition of the UEFA European U-17 Women's Championship and, six months on, they underlined their continental pre-eminence by securing a place at the 2009 finals with some ease.
The statistics of three straight wins and 30 unanswered goals tell the story of Germany's dominance of Group 6, where Serbia and the Bulgarian hosts were beaten 11-0 before top spot was wrapped up with an 8-0 victory over Finland. Ivana Rudelic, Nicole Rolser and Lynn Mester all underlined their goalscoring reputations by helping themselves to impressive individual hauls as the Germans showed just why they are being widely tipped to add a world title to their continental crown.
If a challenge is to come from within Europe, France - edged out by Peter's side in last season's final - currently appear best placed to provide it. Les Bleuettes certainly travel to New Zealand in fine form and with confidence soaring, having topped a formidable section in which Italy and Iceland were expected to provide stiff opposition.
The Scandinavians lived up to their billing, taking France all the way in a match that was only decided four minutes into injury time by a dramatic winning goal from Anais Ribeyra. The same player then helped herself to a hat-trick in the next match as Azerbaijan were put to the sword, 6-0, with Cloe Faillant also grabbing a double.
Italy were expected to provide an altogether tougher test in the third and final match, but in the end they proved no match for a French side that hit top form, with goals from Maeva Clemaron, Lea Le Garrec, Charlotte Fernandes and a brace from the irrepressible Ribeyra securing a resounding 5-0 win.
Carter boosts uncertain England
This emphatic victory might have ensured that France matched Germany's feat of escaping the group stage with an unblemished record, but it wasn't all plain sailing for Europe's New Zealand 2008 hopefuls. England, in fact, face a nervous wait to discover whether their interest in this season's UEFA showpiece is over altogether after losing out to Norway in Group 10.
Lois Fidler's Lionesses looked to have begun their campaign solidly enough with victories over Greece (4-0) and Estonia (3-0) respectively, but an inferior goal difference meant that they went into their final group match against the Norwegians requiring all three points to guarantee top spot. As it was, two goals from the impressive Nordic outfit either side of half-time all but put paid to English hopes, leaving Fidler's side hoping to qualify as one of the six best-placed runners-up, and rendering Paige Eli's late strike a mere consolation.
More meaningful solace for England came in the contribution of 15-year-old Danielle Carter, an emerging star who not only assumed the captaincy, but also re-affirmed her goalscoring prowess with goals against the Greeks and Estonians. The Leyton Orient star looks sure to be one to watch in New Zealand.
England kick off their FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup campaign against Brazil in Wellington on 30 October, the same day as France take on Paraguay in Hamilton. Germany begin their bid the day before in Christchurch against CONCACAF's surprise packages Costa Rica, this at the same time as Denmark commence their campaign in Auckland by locking horns with Colombia.