With the European qualifiers for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007 back underway this week, the battle for top spot in the fiercely contested groups just got tighter. Only Norway were able to distance themselves from the chasing pack, with this week's results bringing Europe's top sides even closer together.
In Sunday's tense clash between archrivals England and France, neither side was able to make the decisive breakthrough. The English had the lion's share of the early chances but were unable to find their way past gifted French shot-stopper Sarah Bouhaddi. The second half was a whole different story, the introduction of veteran forward Marinette Pichon tipping the balance in favour of the visitors. With their big guns on the field, France put the home side under enormous pressure towards the end of the game, but England hung on for the final whistle.
The draw put an end to England's winning run and allowed the Netherlands to close the gap at the top of Group 5 to just one point after their 5-0 rout of Hungary. Although ostensibly out for experience ahead of the 2009 campaign, Vera Pauw's Dutch side are learning fast and have given themselves a real chance of making it through to China 2007.
Norway, meanwhile, maintained their 100 per cent record in qualifying with a 3-0 away win over Greece in Athens, where a brace from Ragnhild Gulbrandsen and a Unni Lehn strike separated the sides. Greece coach Dimitrios Batsilas was lavish in his praise of the visitors, saying his side had been defeated by "one of the best teams in the world". The Scandinavians currently lead Group 1 by three points from Italy, who also beat Greece during the week.
"My players are growing in confidence with every game. We can't afford to trail too far behind Norway if we want to make our head-to-head clash with them count," explained Italy coach Pietro Ghedin, who had Michaela Greco and Tatiana Zorri to thank for his side's 2-0 win over the Greeks.
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Leading the way in Group 3 with ten points are Denmark and Spain, although the Spaniards have played a game less. Denmark picked up a vital win over Belgium to keep their qualifying bid on track, a second-half brace by Merete Pedersen the difference between the sides. Their Belgian hosts, all too aware of the visitors' superior firepower, worked hard to keep the Danes at bay before running out of steam after the interval.
Meanwhile, in the group's other game, Ignacio Quereda's Spanish side showed no mercy as they destroyed Poland 7-0. Adriana opened the scoring on 8 minutes, with the first of an incredible five-goal haul. Raquel and Mari Paz also found the back of the net as Spain exacted full revenge for their defeat in Poland back in September.
Over in Group 8, Wales made a strong start to their campaign, with goals from Cheryl Foster, Jenna Hopkins and Jayne Ludlow giving them a 3-0 win over Moldova. The Welsh then drew with group leaders Israel, taking their points tally to four, three behind the Israelis but with a game in hand.
The European qualifying phase for China 2007 will restart on 15 April 2006.
Click here to find details of all the upcoming matches and results from the European Qualifying Zone for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.
Check out the European Qualifying Zone group tables for the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007.