There are few more tricky ways of kicking off this year's FIFA Women's World Cup 2011™ than against tournament debutants Equatorial Guinea. Even the most well-informed experts are struggling to predict the threat posed by the Africans, though 1995 champions Norway have every reason to be confident of an opening victory based on their promising recent displays.
Prior to beating reigning Olympic champions USA 3-1 in a friendly on Monday, Eli Landsem's charges put in a commendable showing for 70 minutes against reigning world champions Germany, only to concede three goals in three minutes to lose the match 3-0. Even so, few would argue that the Scandinavians appear to have struck form at just the right time heading into the global showdown.
"We know that Equatorial Guinea are physically strong, but we need to begin the tournament with a win," explained captain Ingvild Stensland in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
The 29-year-old Lyon midfielder is acutely aware of the importance of a good start in Augsburg on 29 June: "Our second match against Australia will probably be decisive in terms of us progressing because our third opponents, Brazil, are hot favourites to win the group." As such, the Norwegians are determined to give themselves the best possible head start by taking all three points against their African counterparts.
"We showed for long periods against Germany that we could match them. Admittedly they were a class above for the last 20 minutes, but the first 70 were very positive and we can go into the tournament with every confidence," continued Stensland, who made her long-awaited comeback against the tournament hosts at Mainz 05's Bruchwegstadion after months out with a slipped disc. "It was a special match for me. I was pretty down after the operation in February and I didn't know if I'd be able to play at the World Cup at all. Now I'm back – I did it!"
Hopes on Herlovsen
The experienced skipper, capped 80 times by her country, has played a major role in the development of the Norwegian team over the past few years. "We've got a good mix of young and old. The new generation have brought in a level of quality that some of us more experienced players simply didn't have. I think our game is a lot quicker than it was at the European Championship in 2009."
The northern Europeans are renowned for their good use of the flanks "but we need to make the most of our chances. We create lots of good opportunities, but still we aren't scoring enough."
It is a view shared by striker Isabell Herlovsen. Born in Germany, the 23-year-old is a fine example of the swift, counter-attacking generation referred to by Stensland. "We've been working hard and doing a lot of running. I'm sure that's going to pay off at this World Cup," explained the daughter of former Borussia Monchengladbach defender Kai-Erik Herlovsen.
"I've got no particular association with Germany because I only lived there for two years, but I'm sure that once we get wind of the country's enthusiasm for women's football, we'll have a great tournament!"