The mild spring sunshine in Portugal clearly acts as a tonic
to the US women's team, as the current Olympic gold medallists
comfortably retained the prestigious Algarve Cup in an impressive
return to form after the disappointment of third place at the FIFA
Women's World Cup China 2007 some four months ago.
The team marshalled by new coach Pia Sundhage defeated Denmark 2-1 in a re-run of last year's final to post a sixth triumph in the annual match-up on the Portuguese south coast. The Americans certainly had reason to celebrate after successfully restoring a degree of lost pride and status in the world game, and enjoying a much-needed confidence-booster ahead of the decisive CONCACAF qualifying ties for the 2008 Olympic football tournament in Beijing. After a period in the doldrums, the USA are once again a force to be reckoned with.
Winning back respect
"We had to deal with a strong opponent in every game we played at this tournament. If our performances continue to improve as they have done, I feel we will do well in the tasks ahead of us," commented star striker Abby Wambach after netting the winner against the Danes, her third goal at this year's Algarve Cup and the 89th of her illustrious international career. Natasha Kai opened for the holders, only for Cathrine Paaske Soerensen to equalise and spoil the Americans' otherwise flawless goals against record for the tournament.
Sundhage was understandably pleased afterwards. "I'm very satisfied with our performance," observed the 48-year-old Swede, looking forward to the Beijing showdown with renewed optimism. A final tally of four wins out of four and 12 goals scored by seven different players, combined with the emergence of a clutch of talented newcomers and a new-found tactical flexibility, will have helped Wambach and Co win back a great deal of respect within the international women's game.
Misfiring world champions
By contrast, "could do better" applied to world and European champions Germany after what has become their customary modest performance in the Algarve. Coach Silvia Neid's ensemble finished fourth after suffering two defeats, a 1-0 opening day reverse to the impressive Danes and a 2-0 loss to Norway in the third-place play-off, a stirring recovery by the Scandinavians after an earlier 4-0 mauling at American hands. The Norwegians, fourth at the FIFA Women's World Cup 2007, not only exacted revenge for a bitter 3-0 semi-final defeat to the Germans in China, but also beat keeper Nadine Angerer for the first time in 1,022 minutes of play: Silke Rottenberg kept goal for the Germans against Denmark.
"I'm just glad it's over," confessed FIFA World Cup heroine and former Turbine Potsdam star Angerer, now playing her trade for top Swedish outfit Djurgardens IF. Germany will no longer be regarded as runaway favourites for Beijing after their patchy displays in the Algarve, for although the defence largely appeared solid, the world champions lacked inspiration going forward and were wasteful with the chances they did create. Without Birgit Prinz, scorer of three of her side's five goals at the tournament, Neid's team would be even less convincing than they are now.
"We have room for improvement. I hope we exploit it in time for the Olympics," reflected Neid after the defeat to Norway, although the coach was not entirely dissatisfied after experimenting with a clutch of new faces and formations.
Plenty to ponder for Sweden and China
The Danes will feel the successful trip to the Algarve at least partially made up for their failure to secure a spot at the Olympics. Kenneth Heiner-Moeller's side claimed second place overall and top spot in the Fair Play ranking, and also supplied player of the tournament Paaske-Soerensen.
The teams with the most work to do ahead of the battle for medals in Beijing appear to be Sweden and China. Both won their matches to decide the final classification, Sweden beating Italy 3-0 and the Chinese overcoming hosts Portugal 5-4 on penalties, but fifth for the Scandinavians and ninth for China leave the respective associations with plenty to ponder ahead of this summer's global event.
Algarve Cup 2008: Final standings
12. Republic of Ireland