The tournament's opening day sees Canada and China, who marched all the way to the final in 2002 and 2004 respectively, begin their Russia 2006 campaigns against two teams hoping to prove the surprise packages of this FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship.

China v  Finland
Podmoskovie (Shchelkovo, near Moscow), 17 August, 16:00 local time

Newcomers to this competition, Finland face an imposing task in Group B against three teams who have succeeded in qualifying for every edition, including the beaten finalists from both Canada 2002 and Thailand 2004 in Canada and China.

It is the latter of this heavyweight pair that the Nordic outfit face first, and while his players are bullishly insisting that they have come to Russia with qualification in their sights, long-serving coach Jarmo Matikainen strikes a more downbeat note.

"Realistically," he told at his team's Moscow base, "although being underdogs may help the mental preparation of the players, I think in the end that the quality and experience of teams like China and Canada will tell the story. We have nothing to lose, though, and we'll go into this tournament playing the same system (4-4-2) we used all through qualifying."

This, predictably enough, was greeted as "great news" by  Linda Sallstrom , the team's star striker, who in addition to operating alongside a partner, will be supported from the flanks by the dangerous duo of Essi Sainio and Taru Laihanen. China would certainly be well advised to avoid underestimating a side who, in qualifying for Russia 2006 by virtue of reaching the last four at the 2005 UEFA European U-19 Championships, claimed the scalps of Greece, Portugal, the Netherlands and Switzerland among others.

Matikainen, however, admits that he will accept an early exit from the country's first-ever FIFA World Championship, provided that it establishes a basis for success in the senior women's ranks three years from now. 

"In truth, I'd say we're coming here focussing on player development more than results or qualification because this is a generation of Finnish players we have big hopes for," he said. "Finland hosts the Women's European Championship in 2009 and that's a milestone in these players' development that I think we all have one eye on."

China also have a major senior event looming large on the horizon, of course, in the shape of next year's FIFA Women's World Cup, but unlike the Finns, they arrive in Russia with one, unambiguous target: the title.

Along with the USA, the Steel Rosebuds have the oldest team in the competition, with an average age of 19 years and six months - Finland, by comparison, are among the youngest, at 18 years and nine months - and Asia's number one team at this level will be aiming to go one better than they managed in Thailand two years ago.

Then, to the great surprise of many, China swept aside the illustrious likes of Italy, Canada and Brazil en route to an honourable  2-0 final defeat  to the all-conquering Germans, and Ruihua is hoping that the memory serves to inspire his players, many of whom are veterans of that tournament. "It could be an additional pressure for the team but it could also give them greater motivation," said the 61-year-old.  

Podmoskovie (Shchelkovo, near Moscow), 17 August, 19:00 local time

Beaten finalists in 2002 and quarter-finalists in Thailand, Canada predictably start among the favourites to go the distance at Russia 2006. Coach Ian Bridge believes, however, that with one key exception, this FIFA U-20 Women's World Championship is within the grasp of more teams than either of its predecessors at U-19 level.

"For me, the USA are a level above everyone else at the moment," Bridge told  earlier this week. "But below the US, I think you have six, seven or maybe eight teams who could potentially win this tournament, and I'd like to think that we're on of those teams."

A man whose playing career took him to the 1984 Olympics and 1986 FIFA World Cup™, Bridge has not had his worries to seek coming into this tournament, with the injury-enforced withdrawal of Kara Lang, his captain and star player, undoubtedly the most disquieting.

The fact that he has yet to see Canada's opening match opponents in action is also of legitimate concern, although he knows enough about the Nigerians to expect the most demanding of encounters.

"They will have all the traditional virtues of African football: pace, athleticism, imagination - and heart too, because they've got to where they are without anything like the kind of support in their country that they deserve," he said. "I was actually quite pleased when I first saw the draw, but the longer it's gone, the more I've come to think that we've actually landed in the toughest group."

Canada can, though, take heart from the fact that they have won the  only previous head-to-head between these two teams, which saw a 2-0 defeat inflicted on the Africans during the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship 2002.

A recent, Jodi-Ann Robinson-inspired 3-0 friendly win over the highly-rated Australians has also boosted confidence after a couple of morale-sapping defeats to fellow finalists China and Mexico, although Nigeria's previous experience at this level is sure to make them problematic opponents.

Many will recall that eventual winners Germany required a penalty shoot-out to oust the Falconets from Thailand '04 and they arrive at this tournament unbeaten in 12 FIFA U-19/U-20 Women's World Championship qualifiers.

Nigeria also won't lack for experience; of the six players in Russia participating in their third FIFA World Championship at this level, half are contained within  the Africans' ranks : Akudo Iwuagwu, Akudo Sabi and Cynthia Uwak

Coach Emmanuel Tetteh Okonkwo is certainly of the opinion that his players are "ready to explode" in Russia, and Canada can merely hope that they prove able to withstand the blast.