Play-offs beckon on road to Germany
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Women’s football is still riding the wave of enthusiasm created by the fascinating FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup 2010, which came to an end a few weeks ago in Germany. The tournament set a new record with a grand total of 395,295 fans flocking to the stadiums to watch the drama unfold.

These fond memories have generated a real sense of anticipation around the world, with the same country set to host the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 in around ten months’ time. The world’s elite will all be looking to take the ultimate prize back home with them, with 16 teams set to battle it out between 26 June and 17 July in an attempt to wrest the title from Germany, winners of the  last two editions.

Battle around the world
As well as the champions, who qualify automatically as hosts, three other teams have already secured their berths, with Australia, Japan and Korea DPR proudly flying the flag for Asia at next year’s tournament. "It’s an absolutely fantastic achievement – not merely qualifying for the World Cup in Germany but the fact that we’re going there as Asia’s number one," enthused Australian coach Tom Sermanni, this after the Matildas won the continental championship at the end of May.

Over the coming months, plenty of other countries will be hoping to follow in their footsteps. Between 7 October and 14 November, there will be four continental showdowns which will serve as qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup. North and Central America and the Caribbean, Africa, South America and Oceania all know which teams will be fighting it out for a ticket to Germany. Perennial powerhouses such as the USA, who currently top the FIFA/Coca-Cola Women’s World Ranking, and Brazil, who finished runners-up last time around and have FIFA Women’s World Footballer Marta in their ranks, will be the favourites in their respective confederations.

Italy, England lead play-off charge
Matters will come to a head a little earlier in Europe, and excitement is already at fever pitch ahead of the deciding group matches being played this coming Saturday and Wednesday. Only the winners of the eight groups make it through into the play-offs, to be held on 11/12 and 15/16 September. With only four direct qualifying berths up for grabs, expect competition to be fierce for the coveted spots.

Only two teams are guaranteed a play-off berth already. England and Italy cannot be overhauled at the top of Group 5 and Group 7 respectively, having each drawn one and won the rest of their matches to date. "Let me make it clear, my players aren’t as self-effacing as they used to be. They’re playing their own style now and thoroughly deserve their first place,” said Italy coach Pietro Ghedin in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. His England counterpart Hope Powell is equally confident, saying: "This is probably the strongest squad we’ve had in all the years I’ve been in charge."

The other group leaders are a mixture of habitual favourites – Sweden, Norway, France and Denmark – and surprise packages Switzerland and Poland. Not that these six teams will merely have to turn up to secure their play-off berths: most of the leaders will be playing their closest rivals over the coming days, and still have plenty of work to do before they can look forward to the play-off draw on 30 August.

Poland, Ukraine on collision course
After eight consecutive wins with no fewer than 42 goals scored and none conceded, France will be looking to secure top spot in Group 1 with a result on Saturday against second-placed Iceland. Past winners of the tournament Norway need only a point from either of their two away matches, in Slovakia on Saturday and FYR Macedonia on Wednesda, to finish top of Group 2, and coach Eli Landsem will be hoping that 22-year-old attacker Isabell Herlovsen can add to her tally of nine goals, which puts her second in the scoring charts behind Spain’s Adriana, who has 16 to her name.

Denmark have also yet to concede a goal while finding the back of the net an amazing 45 times, good enough for six wins and a draw. Next Wednesday, Kenneth Heiner-Moller’s team face their nearest challengers in Group 3, Scotland, and a draw at home for the Danes will be sufficient to see them through. Group 4 on the other hand is a little less straightforward. Leaders Poland will have to sit and watch on Saturday as their main rivals Ukraine attempt to defeat Romania and close the gap at the top to two points. Then on Wednesday, the two teams will face each other in what is virtually a decider for a play-off spot, with Ukraine enjoying home advantage.

Switzerland eye history
There could be a minor surprise in store in Group 6, where Switzerland currently head the table after a pair of impressive away wins in Russia and Ireland. Three points at home on Saturday against bottom-of-the-table Kazakhstan would guarantee qualification, but the Swiss, who have never reached the final stage of this tournament, will have to do without star striker Ramona Bachmann. The Swedes in Group 8 meanwhile only need one more point from their remaining two games, away to the Czech Republic on Saturday and at home to Wales on Wednesday, to make the play-offs.

Incidentally, the four play-off losers will have another chance to qualify. They will play off again amongst themselves with the winner facing the third-placed team from the North, Central America and Caribbean zone. Yet another indication that there is plenty of tension and excitement to come on the road to Germany.

Precise information on the times, fixtures and tables on the road to Germany 2011 can be found in the left-hand navigation under 'Qualification'.