Followers of women's football in Norway marked next Sunday in their diaries a long time ago, as the team coached by Bjarne Berntsen goes in search of at least a point in the Ukraine to seal a place at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. Demoralised after missing out on the 2004 Olympics, the Norwegians made an impressive comeback to finish runners-up at the 2005 UEFA European Championships, a process of rehabilitation which could be spectacularly completed on the world stage next year.

As he plots a route to the finals, Berntsen has turned to a player who was not part of the squad for the previous three matches, but has shown rock-solid consistency at club level. Starlet Tonje Hansen turns out for Kolbotn IL, currently second in the Norwegian league. "I wasn't necessarily expecting a call-up," a delighted Hansen commented. The national coach reckons she has perfect attributes for the crunch meeting in the Ukraine. "She's extremely good on the break. Ukraine will suit her a lot better than Greece or Serbia, who we've already played this year," Berntsen reasoned. The coach was also keen to emphasise the difficulty of Sunday's task, saying: "Ukraine are very strong at home.", Hansen, however, remains in confident mood: "We should be capable of winning a point, although obviously it's always difficult going to places like the Ukraine."

The Norwegians must overcome one injury setback. Potent striker Ragnhild Gulbrandsen was a regular on the scoresheet after returning in March, but has been out injured since early August. "We'll have to cope without our most experienced goalscorer, but we have plenty of alternatives to cover the role," Berntsen remarked.

Meanwhile, Denmark are determined to avoid their qualification campaign coming down to mathematics on the last matchday by winning their penultimate qualifier in Finland and securing their berth in China. Should the Danes draw or lose, the Group 3 leaders would come within range of the Finns, who visit Denmark in the last match. Denmark slipped up in their final warm-up a few weeks ago, although a 2-1 defeat to the Norwegians contained encouraging signs for the Finland double-header. New boss Kenneth Heiner-Møller is confident enough: "We actually played well against Norway, and with a little more luck we'd have drawn. We matched very strong opponents for long spells, which was promising ahead of the match against Finland." 

Swedes target routine victory
Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby has less than happy memories of weekend opponents Iceland. Almost exactly a year ago, in his first match in charge of the senior squad, his side only managed a 2-2 draw at home to the same opposition. As a precaution, Dennerby personally undertook a spying mission to observe Iceland fall 4-2 against the Czech Republic. He will have seen little to worry him, as his team has improved with every match and have won all five FIFA Women's World Cup qualifiers since their opening draw.

"You'd normally expect us to win this kind of game," the coach remarked, aware his players will need patience as they devise strategies to prise apart Iceland's packed defence, and minimise the risk of being caught on the break. "That's the way they like to play it, and that's what we've got to expect," Dennerby summarised, urging his players to overlap where possible and make sure they convert their chances.

The Swedes have been boosted by Hanna Ljungberg's return to squad duty for the first time since sustaining a serious injury at the Algarve Cup. "I'm not making any great demands of myself after such a long time away from the national team. It's just great to be back," the player declared. Keeper Sofia Lundgren and defender Maria Bergqvist come in for the injured Hedvig Lindahl and Sara Larsson. Victory over Iceland would not quite be enough to guarantee Sweden their place in China, but they would be odds-on to qualify should they add another three points. 

Germans seek double victory as Prinz approaches 150 caps
Germany coasted to a 5-0 victory over Italy by way of a warm-up for FIFA Women's World Cup qualifiers in Ireland and Switzerland. Coach Silvia Neid believes her players can bring home the bacon. "We've assembled a good blend of experience and up-and-coming players looking to cement places in the squad," she commented, although she is not underestimating the scale of the forthcoming tasks. "Both Ireland and Switzerland will keep it tight at the back and try to counter attack. It means we have to be creating space by running hard and passing well," Neid analysed. Germany require a double victory to leapfrog Group 4 leaders Russia and return to the top of the standings.

Birgit Prinz claims not to be interested in statistics, but she will surely feel a sense of pride in Dublin on Saturday when she pulls on a Germany shirt for the 150th time. "It's incredible she's played so many internationals at the age of just 28," her coach declared admiringly. Prinz underscored her value to the team with a brace against Italy. "Birgit's always good for vital goals," Neid smiled.

Forthcoming FIFA Women's World Cup qualifiers:

26.08.2006
Republic of Ireland - Germany
Iceland - Sweden
Finland - Denmark
Switzerland - Scotland
Austria - Hungary

27.08.2006
Ukraine - Norway
Czech Republic- Belarus

30.08.2006
Switzerland - Germany