Big guns seek Germany berths
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The weekend sees the start of the European qualifying play-offs for the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011. Group winners Ukraine, Switzerland, Italy, England, France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are all just one step away from sealing a place at next summer’s finals in Germany.

The four play-off winners are guaranteed a berth at the global showdown, but the losers are not entirely out of the running either. The quartet play off again in October to determine the team which goes forward to a meeting with the nation finishing third in North and Central America and the Caribbean, with the winners taking the final spot at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. But first, with confirmed places in Germany at stake, the forthcoming European play-offs promise plenty of tension and excitement.

The big game
First leg: Gothenburg, Saturday 11 September, 16.00
Second leg: Vejle, Thursday 16 September, 18.30

The Swedes rate as one of the major forces in the women’s game and currently occupy fourth spot in the FIFA Women’s World Ranking. The Scandinavians have yet to miss a FIFA Women’s World Cup finals. They beat Germany in the third-place play-off at the 1991 event in China PR, but lost to the same opponents in the final of the 2003 tournament in the USA. However, Thomas Dennerby’s side face a stern test in the shape of neighbours Denmark. The Danes lie tenth in the world ranking and have themselves missed only one FIFA Women’s World Cup, back in 2003.

The teams met in qualifying for the 2008 Women’s Olympic Football Tournament, where the Swedes claimed the third European qualifying berth with a 7-3 aggregate victory.

"Obviously, we’re very relieved we’ve safely made the play-offs. But to be honest with you, it only starts for real now," Dennerby told "It's the same situation for all the teams who’ve made it this far. We all have to play to our maximum potential, starting right now."

The other ties
Switzerland pulled off arguably the biggest upset of all in the group stages. In Group 6, Beatrice von Siebenthal’s side edged out favourites Russia and are now aiming for a maiden appearance at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Their qualifying record was certainly impressive, with seven wins and one defeat for a total of 21 points.

However, the Swiss have been handed a monumental play-off task in the shape of England, currently ninth in the world ranking to Switzerland’s 26th, and boasting world-class players such as Kelly Smith and Rachel Yankey. The teams last met at the Cyprus Cup in March, where the game ended 2-2.

England have appeared twice at the FIFA Women’s World Cup finals to date, reaching the quarter-finals in both 1995 (Sweden) and 2007 (China PR).

The Swiss are not the only candidates dreaming of a maiden tilt at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Ukraine, 20th in the world ranking, have yet to grace the global stage and are keen to do just that, although they too have been drawn against formidable opponents. Norway were world champions in 1995 and rate among the established elite in the women’s game.

Just like Sweden, Norway have never missed a FIFA Women’s World Cup. They came second in 1991, won the trophy in 1995, finished fourth in 1999 and 2007, and made the quarter-finals in 2003, so coach Anatoliy Kutsev’s Ukraine team definitely start as underdogs.

By contrast, the France-Italy clash looks much more evenly-matched on paper. Les Bleues won all their Group 1 matches, scoring 50 goals and conceding none at all, but the Italians dropped a mere two points in Group 7, with 38 goals for and just three against. Fireworks could be in store for the crowds when the two free-scoring sides cross swords.

The French have appeared just once at the FIFA Women’s World Cup, back in 2003. They came within a game of qualifying for the 2007 finals in China but were edged out by England. Italy are looking for a third trip to go with appearances in 1991 and 1993.

First leg ties
11 September
Sweden-Denmark (Gothenburg, 16.00)
Ukraine-Norway (Chernigov, 17.00)
France-Italy (Besancon, 20.45)
12 September
England-Switzerland (Shrewsbury, 20.05)

Second leg ties
15 September
Italy-France (Gubbio, 15.00)
Norway-Ukraine (Bekkestua, 18.00)
16 September
Denmark-Sweden (Vejle, 18.30)
Switzerland-England (Wohlen, 19.00)