© AFP

Aspirants for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ continue to test themselves for the June-July tournament and auditions don’t come better credentialed than the Algarve Cup. The 12-nation annual event on the sun-kissed Portuguese coast has long been a key part of the women’s football calendar, and its importance was magnified even more this year.

First held in 1994, the tournament is the best regarded women’s football event outside FIFA tournaments. This year no less than nine of the 12-team field – Brazil, China PR, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and USA - will be reacquainted in Canada. Also featuring over the eight days were Denmark, Iceland and hosts Portugal.

Once again USA came out on top continuing their love affair with the holiday region and its tournament. A 2-0 win over France in Wednesday’s final gave the Stars and Stripes a tenth win in the 22nd edition of the event. The victory extends USA’s dominance with Norway next best on four wins, while Germany and Sweden have been crowned three times each.

Even competition
Each team played four matches - three group matches and a placement match. Yet only USA remained undefeated which is a positive for the intensity of competition that can be expected in Canada.

Group A proved to be as fascinating as it was powerful. Three of the quarter-finalists from the 2011 Women’s World Cup featured – Germany, Sweden and Brazil – where they were joined by one-time powerhouse China PR. The three heavyweights all shared a win amongst each other, most notably Sweden opened with a 4-2 victory over continental rivals Germany which ultimately proved enough to top the group. The *Blagult *then lost 2-0 to Brazil, who in turn ended with a 3-1 defeat against Germany.

USA topped Group B but it was tougher for the Stars and Stripes than the raw statistics suggest. They impressed in the middle matchday with a solid 3-0 win over the fast-developing Switzerland, but either side of that they were made to work overtime. The world No2 were forced to come from behind to defeat Norway 2-1 with a Carli Lloyd double, before being held to a scoreless stalemate against Iceland.

Group C was headlined by France and Japan where *Les Bleues *secured a dose of revenge over the world champions for their Olympic Football Tournament London 2012 defeat. The Europeans overran the *Nadeshiko *in the latter stages for a 3-1 win having been down at the break. It was enough for France to top the group with a perfect record after an impressive 4-1 triumph over Denmark, and a surprisingly tough 1-0 win over unheralded Portugal.

*Glory and anguish *
Despite little historical pedigree, home side Portugal claimed a minor triumph by defeating China PR on penalties in the play-off for eleventh following a last-gasp equaliser for a 3-3 draw. Japan finished ninth with a 2-0 victory over Iceland, but it was a modest campaign for Norio Sasaki’s side who go home with two wins and two defeats.

Overall results were even worse for Switzerland who ended with a chastening 4-1 defeat to Brazil to return home boasting just one triumph. Fifth-place marked a return to form of sorts for Brazil following an erratic couple of years. Their superstar forward Marta proved popular among the local fans and she repaid that support with a two-goal showing against the Swiss.

Sweden were unable to reprise their opening-day win over Germany, with the latter triumphing 2-1 thanks to a second-half goal from Alexandra Popp which proved to be the winner. Sofia Jakobsson pulled a goal back for Sweden and while it was not enough to earn a result, it meant the *Blagult *attacker finished as the tournament's top-scorer.

First-half goals from young central defender Julie Johnston and talented attacker Christen Press were enough to lift USA to victory over France in the Algarve decider, and at the same overturn the scoreline against the same opponents just a month. There was some solace for France, however, with striker Eugenie Le Sommer named player of the tournament.

The identity of the two US goalscorers provides evidence of a changing of the guard for the Stars and Stripes with neither having yet played for the senior national team in a FIFA competition. And USA goalkeeper Hope Solo offered up an ominous warning ahead of Canada 2015. “We’re on the right track to peak for the World Cup which is still three months away,” she said. “We’re not at our best yet but we’re getting there.”

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