Norway have become the first UEFA nation to seal a berth at the FIFA Women's World Cup China 2007. The team coached by Bjarne Berntsen always knew they were in for a fight on their travels to Ukraine, but in the end a 1-1 draw handed the 1995 world champions the single point they required. In a tense match, the in-form Ukrainians took a 28th-minute lead through Tatjana Verezubova, but Unni Lehn's equaliser on the stroke of half time proved enough to book a ticket to China.
Norway assistant coach Pål Arne Johansen was a happy man afterwards. "You'd normally expect us to win the match, despite the fact we didn't play that well as a team. But making it to the World Cup finals is the only thing that matters." The Norwegians have gained an extra month's worth of preparation time, and will approach their final qualifier in Italy with the pressure totally off. "We have a full year to get ready, but it's time we most definitely need," Johansen observed.
Swedes complete routine victory in Iceland
Sweden never looked in trouble as they cantered to a 4-0 win in Iceland to take another giant stride towards the finals. Malin Moström, Sara Thunebro, Victoria Svensson and Hanna Ljungberg scored the goals for the visitors, who now round off their qualifying campaign on 24 September against Czech Republic, themselves 3-0 winners over Belarus. The Swedes need only a draw after defeating the Czechs 3-2 away from home, and would still go through in the event of losing 1-0 or 2-1. However, should Thomas Dennerby's side lose at home by a two-goal margin or more, the Czechs would breast the tape just ahead of their Scandinavian rivals. The East Europeans are determined to achieve just that, although it would undoubtedly rate as a shock result.
Germans maintain 100 per cent record
Reigning world and European champions Germany registered two clear-cut away victories to close in on a berth in China. A quick-fire treble was enough for a 3-0 victory in Ireland, before Birgit Prinz and Co travelled to Schaffhausen a few days later and ran out 6-0 winners against Switzerland. However, the home team held off their all-conquering neighbours for a long period before the physically superior Germans rammed home their advantage in the closing stages. The side coached by Sylvia Neid thus moved to the top of Group 4 with maximum points from six matches. Should the Germans win on their travels to Scotland, they could afford a defeat by three clear goals in their last fixture away to Russia and still qualify for China. "I don't think we'll blow it now," an upbeat Prinz declared after winning her 150th cap against Ireland, although coach Neid was altogether more wary: "We're not there yet. We'll take our remaining games away to Scotland and Russia extremely seriously."
England on course
England remain on course for a place at the finals following a convincing 4-0 home victory over the Netherlands. A Kelly Smith hat-trick and a Rachel Yankey effort brought a smile to the faces of coach Hope Powell and the vast majority of an 8,000 crowd. England now focus their attention on 30 September, when they travel to France. Assuming Les Bleuettes beat Austria at home in the meantime, Powell and her team will know they cannot afford to lose to the French following a disappointing goalless draw at home in the first meeting.
Denmark and Finland neck and neck
Over in Group 3, the race for a place goes down to the wire after Finland defeated visiting Denmark 2-1. The group hinges on the return when the Finns travel to play on Danish soil. The teams are deadlocked on 16 points, but the psychological advantage lies with the Finns as they travel to Viborg on 27 September knowing a draw will see them though by virtue of their superior head-to-head record in the group. Laura Kalmari-Österbergille and Minna Mustonen struck the goals in Tampere to keep Finnish qualifying dreams alive, whereas a Danish shot against the post at the death could yet prove an agonising miss. In spite of that, coach Kenneth Heiner-Møller came away in defiant mood. "Our destiny is still in our own hands," he declared. A victory by any margin would see the Danes home and dry.
The last round of qualifiers, scheduled between 20 and 30 September, promises plenty of drama as the sides battle for one of the four remaining European berths at China 2007.