With 228 days to go before the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup begins, four qualified teams, namely Germany, the USA, England and hosts China, meet in Guangzhou for the annual Four-Nation Championship which begins on Friday. As well as it being a fine competition in its own right, it is also a perfect yardstick to measure the teams' preparations for September's showpiece event.
A familiar face who will not be involved during the tournament is China coach Ma Liangxing, who is in hospital with a heart problem. The man who led an unfancied China team to a runners-up spot at the FIFA Women's U-19 World Championship in Thailand three years ago, Wang Haiming, has taken over the reins in his absence.
"The morale of the team is good and the players have not been affected," said Wang. "In fact, they are feeling indebted to Ma who is ill because of all his hard work. The team will give everything they can to repay the coach."
However, the omens do not look so good for China, who are in a transitional phase since losing the stars of their golden generation that finished runners-up at USA 1999. Most of the country's hopes are being pinned on striker Ma Xiaoxu , who looks certain to lead the Steel Roses' attack alongside Han Duan.
The USA's pedigree in this competition is unparalleled. They have won the tournament four times (1998, 2003, 2004 and 2006) and have happy memories of Guangzhou, the city where they won the inaugural FIFA Women's World Cup back in 1991.
Although coach Greg Ryan hoping to win the trophy for the US for a record fifth time, he has decided to rest some of his star names such as Kristine Lilly , Abby Wambach, Aly Wagner and Christie Rampone and give the younger players a run-out during the Four Nations.
"I've kept the four players at home to give them more rest and I hope they can reach their best form by World Cup," said Ryan. "We have a lot of young talented players and they will need more international exposure to learn more about the game."
England expects, Germany gears up
After qualifying for the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup, England were brought back to earth with a bump when they were beaten 5-1 by Germany in October. With the USA also ranked second in the world , England will be under no illusion about the challenge awaiting them.
However, with Head Coach Hope Powell adamant that her side will not be traveling to China in September to make up the numbers, she believes that the three games will be invaluable match preparation, as well as helping with a cultural introduction to China, its people, customs and climate.
"It's a tournament that we have been trying to enter for a few years and I think that this time it has something to do with us qualifying for the World Cup," she said. "Competing against China, USA and Germany will be vitally important as will the great opportunity we now have to experience China itself.
"I think that we have always tried to play the best possible opposition to learn from the experience. It gave the girls a real taste of the next level of what is expected of them and what is needed from them to reach that level before September. To play three of the leading nations in January is a great opportunity to expose the players to playing against the best teams in the world and in the culture and environment that the World Cup will encompass."
Meanwhile, Germany travel to China without seven key players such as stars Birgit Prinz, Renate Lingor and Steffi Jones, but coach Silvia Neid still believes that her team will do well.
"We will work hard to win the tournament, but the most important thing is that we learn lessons for the World Cup," she said. "I'm expecting the competition to be excellent, because we're facing three of the world's top teams. It will also be a good test for the Chinese organisers too - it will benefit everyone."