llo A new round of UEFA qualifiers for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 is about to get underway, with some mouth-watering ties in prospect. On Sunday 26 March, all eyes will be turned towards the match between England - hosts of the 2005 European Championships - and France, who find themselves with their backs to the wall after their shock home defeat to the Netherlands.
England came on in leaps and bounds last year under coach Hope Powell and are currently sitting pretty at the top of Group 5 on nine points from three games, with an incredible goal difference of +17 (18 goals for, 1 against). France are second in the group, on the same number of points as the Netherlands but with a better goal difference. Should England manage a fourth win in a row in this weekend's match in Blackpool, they can virtually book their tickets for China already.
This match will also see a reunion of sorts between England playmaker Kelly Smith and France's top striker Marinette Pichon, who played together a few seasons ago for the Philadelphia Chargers in the now defunct US women's professional league (WUSA). "She is a good friend of mine," explained Pichon to FIFA.com. "We've mailed each other two or three times in the past few weeks, but we haven't spoken on the phone in quite a while. I like her as a person as well a player, and she is one of the most important members of the England team. We'll have to stop her from playing, and I'll be giving my team-mates a few tips on how we can do this."
Coach Elisabeth Loisel's team have fond memories of playing England, having beaten them twice in the 2002 play-offs (1-0 in both legs) to qualify for the FIFA Women's World Cup USA 2003TM. Since then, however, England have made great progress and are really playing together as a team, meaning that Les Bleues will have their work cut out this time around.
England are currently brimming with confidence. Since their unlucky exit from the opening round of EURO 2005, they have not only won all their FIFA World Cup qualifying matches, but also managed to draw twice with Sweden in Cyprus a few weeks ago, which was further confirmation of the team's potential.
Last time out, England beat Iceland 1-0, but Powell knows that they will be coming up against opponents of a different class this weekend, and refuses to acknowledge that her team are favourites. "We are obviously looking good in terms of the standings, but that means nothing. France are the highest ranked country in our group and are favourites to win the group and thus qualify for the World Cup." At the Algarve Cup in Portugal, the England manager was able to have a look at Sunday's opponents. "They've got a lot of quality players and the team itself is very balanced," she commented.
France ended up fourth at the Algarve Cup after a tournament of peaks and troughs. Defeats to USA and Sweden were balanced out by a win against China and a draw with Denmark. The China result will help keep the mood in the French camp positive, and with the players having travelled together to England last Wednesday, Loisel will have had valuable time in which to fine-tune her team ahead of this incredibly important match.
"This is a must-win game for us," says Pichon, explaining to FIFA.com just how important the match is for the French. "It'll be no easy task. There will be a highly charged atmosphere. The game will be shown live on television in England, which will make their team even more determined, but we have already proved that we can beat England. We just need to confirm it."
Tough away matches for the Scandinavians
Norway and Denmark will be looking to reinforce their top spots in Groups 1 and 3 respectively with wins away from home. The Norwegians in particular will be looking to maintain a run of form similar to England's - in the FIFA World Cup qualifiers to date, they have recorded three wins in as many matches. Despite a good overall showing at the Algarve Cup, poor finishing saw them finish a lowly fifth, but coach Bjarne Berntsen's team should nevertheless be able to overcome Greece at the weekend.
"I'm not at all anxious about the World Cup qualifiers ahead of us," says Berntsen. "We played in Portugal and we'll find the net more in the next few games." A number of the Norwegian players are currently in decent form, even though it is only pre-season at the moment. Ane Stangeland in particular was consistently strong in the Algarve tournament.
The game in Belgium will be particularly important for Denmark after they disappointed at the Algarve Cup, though in their defence, they were unlucky with injuries. A win would help them regain some of the lost confidence and also put pressure on Spain, who are level with them on points and have to meet Poland a few days later.
"We know that we have to win this match, and we are well placed to do so," explains an optimistic Denmark coach Peter Bonde referring to the home match against the Belgians some six months ago which they won 3-0. "If we use our speed and stick to the right tactics, there should be no problems."
All the UEFA qualifiers for the FIFA Women's World Cup
Current UEFA standings for the FIFA Women's World Cup qualifiers