With just over three months to go before the FIFA Women’s World Cup Germany 2011™, USA further underlined their title credentials with victory at the 18th edition of the Algarve Cup. Competing on Portugal’s picturesque southern coast between 2 and 9 March, the Stars and Stripes claimed their eighth Algarve Cup thanks to four straight wins and what coach Pia Sundhage lauded as “some very good football”.

While the manner of qualification for Germany 2011 – only secured after a play-off with Italy – raised questions about the quality of this USA side, this week’s triumph in Portugal left no one in any doubt about the threat they will carry this summer. Displaying both style and quality in spades, the North Americans ran out victorious against Group A rivals Japan and Norway, two of the teams expected to challenge for medals in Germany.

“I’m happy with how we played in this tournament,” Sundhage told FIFA.com after the final. "It’s been a superb preparation for us for the World Cup. We can now safely say we’re ready, as we feel we’ve rediscovered our best level."

That said, this week’s victory was far from easy, especially the final, in which tournament revelation Iceland pushed them hard. Sigurour Eyjolfsson’s side earned their place in the decider by comprehensively winning Group B ahead of the more fancied Swedes, Danish and Chinese.

In yesterday’s final, the northern Europeans quickly fell behind to Carli Lloyd strike, before stunning their opponents with two goals in three minutes from Katrin Omarsdottir and Hallbera Gisladottir to go ahead just before the half-hour mark. Lauren Cheney then restored parity in first-half stoppage time before Heather O’Reilly put USA back in front ten minutes after the interval.

For all their technical superiority and possession, the North Americans struggled to break down a tactically disciplined and physically imposing Icelandic team, and it was not until three minutes from time that Alex Morgan put the game beyond the Europeans by making it 4-2.

Nonetheless, Iceland were understandably happy with their efforts. “Last year we finished ninth and this time we contested the final against the world’s number one side,” Eyjolfsson said afterwards. "That represents a very encouraging and significant step forward for the women’s game in our country. This tournament has been a very positive experience, as we’ve faced some of our biggest rivals and posted our first ever wins over Denmark and China."

It’s been a superb preparation for us for the World Cup. We can now safely say we’re ready, as we feel we’ve rediscovered our best level.

USA coach Pia Sundhage

Japan secured third place as well as providing the Player of the Tournament in captain Homara Sawa. For coach Norio Sasaki, there was much to be satisfied with. “It’s been a good tournament for the team. We’ve improved a lot in our link-up play and in a few other areas we needed to work on.

"Moreover, we’ve given an opportunity to a group of young players, and the results have been very promising. For all that, we won’t be resting on our laurels, as we need to keep working hard with a view to the World Cup,” she told FIFA.com after winning the match for third place against Sweden. The Nadeshiko had previously beaten Norway and Finland after going down 2-1 to USA in a close-fought encounter.

For Germany 2011 finalists Norway and Sweden, two wins and two defeats apiece was a modest return. However, with their domestic leagues set to kick off in the coming weeks, both countries expect to be in better shape come the showpiece event in late June.

At the stadiums along the Algarve, there were also delegations from non-competing counties hoping to get an update on their potential opponents at the finals. Germany coach Silvia Neid was a keen observer of the Japan-Sweden game among others, while England also had representatives at several matches.

The 2011 Algarve Cup was an important step on the road to Germany not just for the coaches and players involved, but also for the match officials. Sixty-two international referees and assistant referees gathered for two weeks of tests and officiating in a bid to make the final list of 48 to arbitrate in Germany. And though the competing teams still have time to fine-tune a few things, anxious officials can do nothing else now but wait for word to come.

Making strides
While Groups A and B featured the competition’s top sides – the format allows only the teams from these two sections to contest the top six places - Group C provided an opportunity for some of the up-and-coming nations of the women’s game. Making the most the chance on this occasion were hosts Portugal, Wales, Romania and Fair Play award-winners Chile, all of whom showed the considerable progress made in recent times.

Perhaps the most satisfied coach of this quartet was the hosts’ coach Monica Jorge, whose side went unbeaten throughout and ended up beating Finland in the match for ninth place. “We’re leaving the Algarve as a stronger team and very satisfied, as we didn’t lose a single game," she said. "We’ve made gains in terms of ability and mental fortitude, and we have great commitment on the part of the players. Now we need to continue in this vein, rectify some faults and improve our competitiveness, as the qualifiers for the next European Championship will not be easy. There’s still a long way to go."

The same could be said for a host of other less-heralded countries in the women’s game, but all the signs indicate they are heading in the right direction and improving fast.

Final standings
2. Iceland
3. Japan
4. Sweden
5. Norway
6. Denmark
7. China PR
8. Wales
9. Portugal
10. Finland
11. Chile
12. Romania

Japan 1-2 USA
Sweden 1-2 Iceland
China PR 0-1 Denmark
Romania 1-1 (5-6 pens) Chile
Norway 2-1 Finland
Portugal 3-1 Wales
Japan 5-0 Finland
USA 2-0 Norway
Iceland 2-1 China PR
Denmark 1-3 Sweden
Portugal 0-0 Chile
Wales 2-1 Romania
Norway 0–1 Japan
Finland 0-4 USA
China PR 0-1 Sweden
Denmark 0-1 Iceland
Chile 1-2 Wales
Portugal 1-1 Romania
Romania 0-0 (5-6 pens) Chile
Portugal 2-1 Finland
China PR 2-1 Wales
Norway 0-0 (6-5 pens) Denmark
Japan 2-1 Sweden
USA 4-2 Iceland