Nordic duo flex their muscles
© AFP

Scandinavia's long-established and thoroughly merited reputation as a hotbed of female footballing talent will once again be underlined this September when three Nordic nations dominate Europe's quintet of FIFA Women's World Cup representatives.

Denmark, Norway and Sweden might lag a little behind the likes of USA and Germany in the list of pre-tournament favourites, but with the Swedes having reached the final last time around and the Norwegians one of just three previous world champions at women's level, the progress of this pair of potential dark horses is being monitored justifiably closely.

And it currently makes for impressive reading. Unlike the Danes, who do not kick off their qualifying campaign for the UEFA Women's Championship until after China 2007, Sweden and Norway have both been in EURO action over the past month, each seemingly aiming to outdo the other.

Though once again afflicted by the same scale of injury problems that curtailed their Olympic adventure in 2004, Thomas Dennerby's Swedes seem to have drawn inspiration from their mounting casualty list, racking up 16 goals in just three continental preliminary matches without conceding any in reply.

The tone was set when an under-strength side defied pre-match predictions with a 2-0 victory away to Italy on 5 May, a standard which was maintained by a subsequent EURO double-header away to Romania and at home to Hungary on 16 and 20 June that yielded back-to-back 7-0 victories.

The emphatic nature of these competitive victories provided a timely fillip for the luckless Swedes, and for no-one more so than striker Victoria Svensson, who celebrated something of a personal triumph against Romania, accruing a remarkable five-goal haul.

Therese Sjogran and Lotta Schelin also found the target in that match, and both Sjogran and Svensson were back among the goals four days later when Sweden recovered from the early withdrawal of Hanna Ljungberg to put Hungary to the sword in spectacular fashion.

That result left the Swedes perched comfortably at the summit of their preliminary section, six points clear of Italy, and with their free-scoring form emulating a FIFA Women's World Cup qualifying campaign that produced 32 goals for and six against, it was no wonder that Dennerby seemed pleased. "We promised ourselves we would go out there and do a good job straight from the start and that was exactly what we did," he said after the Hungary match. "It looks good after three games played!"

Ljungberg adds to injury woes
Not everything is rosy in the Swedish garden, however. Ljungberg's aforementioned withdrawal after just seven minutes merely served to exacerbate doubts about a player who, though a talisman to her team-mates, is proving increasingly injury-prone. The 28-year-old, who left the field in tears, had only just returned from a thigh injury, and now the calf strain she picked up against the Hungarians is set to consign her to the sidelines for another five-to-six weeks.

Ljungberg remains adamant that she will be fit in time to take her place on the plane to China, but doubts over the player who fired ten goals in just five qualifying matches have merely added to Dennerby's woes. After all, as if losing stalwarts such as Malin Mostrom, Linda Fagerstrom and Anna Sjostrom to retirement wasn't bad enough, the former Hammarby coach has also been forced to contend with injuries to Therese Lundin, Sara Larsson, Madelaine Edlund and, most recently, Josefine Oqvist.

The 23-year-old forward has, in fact, now been ruled out of the FIFA Women's World Cup altogether after tearing anterior cruciate knee ligaments while in action for her club, Linkoping FC. "I didn't imagine it would be this bad," lamented Dennerby. "There is no natural replacement for Oqvist. She is unique."

The Sweden coach will now look to reshape his side, and pray that Ljungberg can recover sufficiently, before taking his players to face Denmark in a final pre-tournament friendly ahead of squaring up to Nigeria in their China 2007 opener on 11 September.

Gulbrandsen boosts Berntsen
Dennerby's Norwegian counterpart, Bjarne Berntsen, has no such worries. Indeed, as Sweden fret over the loss of their star performer, Norway are celebrating the return of an icon of their own.

Having taken a year out following the birth of her first child in 2006, Solveig Gulbrandsen has certainly wasted little time in re-establishing herself in the international arena, with the influential playmaker central to Norway's successive EURO qualifying wins over Israel and Austria. Gulbrandsen's midfield mastery is key to the more expansive style of football Bertsen has worked so tirelessly to introduce, and she is also a threat in the opposition box, a fact she underlined by grabbing Norway's second goal in a routine 3-0 win away to Israel on 17 June.

The match four days later saw the 26-year-old remind everyone of her ability to produce the spectacular, with Austria's stubborn resistance only broken on the stroke of half-time by a 30-yard thunderbolt from Gulbrandsen's right boot. Melissa Wiik and Trine Ronning were also on target in a one-sided 3-0 win that left Norway level with Russia on six points and one adrift of group leaders Poland, albeit with two games in hand.

Nevertheless, Berntsen, a former Norwegian international who led his country to the final of UEFA EURO 2005, is a canny enough customer to realise that such comfortable wins do not disguise the fact that his side will need to raise their game considerably before jetting out to China. The 50-year-old has set his side the lofty target of a podium finish, and has organised demanding warm-up matches against the heavyweight trio of Germany, USA and Canada, admitting that, in Israel and Austria, his side had faced "two teams who aren't among the best in Europe". "We need some run-outs against the top teams before the World Cup," he said, "so that our players can get up to the required level and see what we still need to work on before the tournament starts."

After all, with the tournament now less than two months away, the time left for fine-tuning is running short.