In the European confederation (UEFA), the qualifiers being held over the next few days will go a long way to determining who earns a spot at the FIFA Women's World Cup.
Group 5 will get proceedings underway with a tie between England and Austria. This is a must-win game for Hope Powell's table-toppers, purely for the fact that anything less than three points against the Austrians will be a real disappointment.
The match will by no means be a walkover for England's women, however. "People sometimes look at the world rankings and see that we're 13th while Austria are only 45th," commented Faye White, back in the squad after suspension, in an interview with TheFA.com. "But when we played the away qualifier in Anstetten, they proved that they have players in their ranks who can punish us if we're not on top of our game." England did nevertheless come out on the right side of a 4-1 score-line that day, but only after going behind and struggling to get into a rhythm. England will also be without their 19-year-old Nigerian-born striker Eniola Aluko for the game, who is currently taking exams.
"The Austria match is another important game for us," explained manager Powell. "Tickets are selling well and with our fans behind us, we should be able to get a positive result which will take us a further step closer to qualifying for the 2007 World Cup."
Two days later, third-placed France will also be in action in Group 5. "Les Bleues" will be looking at their match versus Hungary, who are yet to register a point in this campaign, as the perfect opportunity to catch up with the top two. Coach Elisabeth Loisel's team will be clear favourites, having won their home fixture last year against the Hungarians 2-0. They were nevertheless made to struggle for a good hour of that game before Sandrine Soubeyrand made the all-important breakthrough.
Sweden with a tough away fixture against the Czechs
Sweden's trip to the Czech Republic is very much make or break as regards their chances of going to China in 2007. The Swedes have seven points from three games, putting them ahead of the Czechs at the top of Group 2 on goal difference. Sweden will be without top striker Hanna Ljungberg, though, who is yet to recover fully from her clash with French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi during an Algarve Cup match. To replace her, coach Thomas Dennerby will either call on the speedy Sara Johansson or alternatively Maria Aronsson, who recently scored in a friendly against England. Besides Ljungberg, 'keeper Sofia Lundgren, defender Karolina Westberg, midfielder Johanna Almgren and forward Salina Olsson will also be missing. One consequence of this spate of injuries is that it is not the big name clubs such as Umeå or Stockholm who are providing the bulk of the players in the squad, but Linköpings FC, with five representatives.
"It's an incredibly important match," outlined Dennerby, "as both teams are on seven points. If we were to win, with our favourable goal difference, it would be the equivalent of going four points clear."
Italy, who are second in Group 1, will be looking to keep up the pressure on leaders Norway with victory against Greece. The Norwegians are top of the group with 12 points, three clear of Italy, but the Squadra Azzurra will be looking for a big win over a Greek team which is yet to open its account in the qualifiers. That should set things up nicely for the decider in September, when Italy will face Norway on home soil.
Spain back on track
After a slow start Spain have got themselves right back on track in recent matches, including a 7-0 thrashing of Poland at the end of March which saw centre-forward Adriana Martin strike five times. Ignacio 'Nacho' Quereda's team are still very much in the running for a place at next year's FIFA World Cup in China, but much will depend on events over the coming week. In the space of five days, they will have to travel to Belgium and then Denmark. Spain are currently level with the Danes in second place in Group 3, although the latter have a game in hand.
Denmark know full well that they will be coming up against the form team in the group, who can cause many a problem with their direct, fast-raiding style of football. "We know Adriana Martin, and she scored against us the last time we played them," said Denmark manager Peter Bonde. "We know that she's a good player and that we'll have to look out for her, but we'll be ready." In the first match between the two teams, the Danes came from behind twice to draw 2-2 and take a precious point back north, despite Spain throwing everything forward in the final minutes.
30-year-old Fortuna Hjorring defender May Krogh Christensen will be hoping to earn her 18th cap for Denmark, after more than two years away from the team. "May has been in outstanding form in the earlier part of this year," said Bonde, "and her kind of experience could be invaluable against Spain."