With the FIFA Women's World Cup now less than four months away, the 16 China-bound combatants are fine-tuning their preparations in a variety of different ways.

Some, understandably, are currently opting to limber up in low-key fashion, and yet this is a luxury that has not been afforded to four of Europe's five representatives, all of whom have UEFA European Championship qualifiers to negotiate between now and September. Denmark, who begin their EURO preliminary campaign late in October, are the sole exception, but the good news for Germany, England and Sweden - all of whom have kicked off their respective bids - is that their first forays into qualifying action have augered well for their prospects in China.

The Germans in particular will have been grateful for two thumping victories that came as a timely tonic after a miserable run of form that saw Silvia Neid's team finish eighth at the Algarve Cup and lose their grip on pole position in the FIFA Women's World Ranking. Wounded and under fire, the world champions have used the time since to remind their critics that, as the old adage goes, form is temporary; class is permanent.

The turning point arrived on 12 April, against a Netherlands side that led until just after the half-hour mark, when Birgit Prinz struck to spark a goal rush that ended in a 5-1 win for a German side aiming for their fifth consecutive European crown. The match was also illuminated by a brace from Renate Lingor, but it was the return to scoring form of Prinz that most cheered the 8,000 fans who cheered the Germans on to victory in Bochum.

The former FIFA Women's World Player of the Year certainly looked to be back to her prolific best in the world champions' next Group 4 match, with her hat-trick the highlight of a one-sided match that saw Germany score six without reply away to Wales. "I am delighted," was the post-match verdict of coach Neid. "Sometimes the players get a bit anxious if they don't get an early goal but these tests are all important, as come the World Cup, we'll be up against some top sides who we will have to work hard to break down. If the goal doesn't come, we musn't panic."

England and Sweden impress
Perseverance also proved to crucial for England as Hope Powell's side opened their EURO campaign with a hard-fought but ultimately convincing 4-0 victory over Northern Ireland on Sunday.

With a squad boasting nine members of the newly-crowned European champions, Arsenal Ladies, England went into the match brimming with confidence, but there were grumbles of discontent at Gillingham's Priestfield Stadium when the half-time whistle blew with the sides still level.

Predictably, however, it was one of the Arsenal contingent, captain Kelly Smith, who bundled home the opener seven minutes after the re-start, and from that moment the outcome was never in doubt as England moved quickly to tie up all three points with further strikes from Katie Chapman, Lianne Sanderson and an own goal from the unfortunate Una Harkin.

"We knew before the game that we'd need to be patient and that's how it worked out," Powell reflected afterwards. "Northern Ireland battled hard but we knew they would tire, and once we showed a bit more composure in the second half, the goals started to come."

There was certainly no shortage of plus points for the England coach to reflect upon, notably the long-awaited return from injury of the influential Faye White, and the impressive, dynamic impact made on the right flank by second half substitute Karen Carney. Next up for the English is a friendly at home to Iceland tomorrow before the squad congregate in July for a training camp that will see them depart to Macau a fortnight prior to competing their first FIFA Women's World Cup since 1995.

Sweden, by contrast, are veterans at the highest level of the women's game, and they served notice that they will once again be a force to be reckoned with in September with an accomplished 2-0 victory away to Italy on 5 May. This was a game in which the Swedes were widely expected to struggle, particularly with injuries to Therese Lundin, Sara Larsson and Madelaine Edlund exacerbating the loss to retirement of Malin Mostrom and Anna Sjostrom.

Yet, while Italy had inflicted defeat on Germany at the Algarve Cup, Sweden could even afford to rest fit-again Hanna Ljungberg and still emerged triumphant thanks to goals from Caroline Seger and Nilla Fischer. Thomas Dennerby's youthful squad can now look forward with confidence to a tough EURO double-header away to Romania on 16 June and at home to Hungary four days later, their final competitive matches before commencing their China 2007 campaign against Nigeria on 11 September.

Norway, meanwhile, also face key preliminary matches in June, with a trip to Israel on the 17th followed by the visit of Austria on the 21st, although coach Bjarne Berntsen is likely to expect maximum points from those encounters ahead of the long journey to Asia.