Europe's France 2019 hopefuls return to centre stage
After a long hiatus, the European qualifying campaign for the FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ resumes this week. Although one fixture – Israel-Finland (0-0) in January – has already been played this year, that scoreless draw means that the first qualifying goal of 2018 has yet to materialise.
FIFA.com looks at the slew of matches scheduled between 5 and 10 April, and their potential effect on the road to France. Of particular interest are the encounters involving England, who will be guided by Phil Neville in a qualifier for the first time, and Germany, who will be looking to show they are still a force to be reckoned with after some disappointing recent results.
Group situation Group 1: Wales, unbeaten so far, sit on top of the section after three wins and a draw, ahead of England, who have won three out of three but also have a game in hand. After four defeats without scoring a single goal, Kazakhstan will be out to bring that unfortunate run to an end in their match with Russia.
Group 2: A similar situation has developed in Group 2, with Switzerland (four wins out of four) and Scotland (two wins out of two) boasting 100 per cent records, while Albania have lost five on the trot.
Group 3: The Netherlands, European champions, and Ireland are neck-and-neck in Group 3, having both drawn one match and emerged victorious from two. Norway sit one point back, and Slovakia are last with zero points.
Group 4: Sweden (nine points from three games) hold a three-point lead over their Scandinavian neighbours, Denmark. Ukraine, lying third after a victory and a draw, can still play a part in the qualifying battle, but that challenge may already be beyond Croatia (two draws, two losses) and Hungary (one draw, three losses).
Group 5: Germany are in pole position in Group 5 (three wins, one loss), but Iceland (two wins, one loss), who raised eyebrows around Europe by pocketing three points in Weisbaden in October, lie in wait should they slip up again. The Czech Republic (two wins, one draw, one loss) will still fancy their chances, unlike the Faroe Islands, who have suffered four defeats in a row.
Group 6: Italy (four wins from four matches) and Belgium (three from three) have set the early pace in this group, and the two contenders will lock horns on 10 April in Ferrara. Portugal and Romania have both struggled to get going, while Moldova are on the verge of being eliminated.
Group 7: Spain (nine points from three matches) face nearest challengers Finland (seven points from three games) on 6 April. Austria (six points) are still in touch, but fifth-placed Israel look to be out of contention.
Five unmissable matches 1 Switzerland-Scotland, 5 April, 19.00 (CET) Switzerland have an eye on their second Women’s World Cup appearance in row, and will have an excellent chance of realising that dream should they get the better of Scotland in Schaffhausen. Although the Scots have played two fewer matches, it does already appear likely that the duels between these two contenders will decide the outcome of the group. While Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who has overseen Switzerland’s transformation from also-rans into solid competitors, is still very much in place, the woman who turned around Scotland’s fortunes, Anna Signeul, has made way for Shelley Kerr, who told FIFA.com recently that “the foundations are there to build on and everyone is feeling good about the team after such a strong finish at the EURO.”
2 Finland-Spain, 6 April, 17.05 (CET) Finland may live to regret the draw they played out with Israel in January, when they were rubbing shoulders with Spain at the top of their group. The Finns now find themselves two points adrift as they welcome a Spanish side that claimed the Cyprus Cup in March and that is increasingly being regarded as one of the game’s powerhouses. “Taking Finland to the World Cup in France would be a dream,” new coach Anna Signeul told FIFA.com in January. A home reverse at the hands of La Roja would likely see that dream shattered.
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3 England-Wales, 6 April, 20.00 (CET) In Southampton on Friday, football fans will finally get an answer to one of the most intriguing questions of this qualifying campaign: can Wales get a result against England and continue to harbour dreams of a first-ever Women’s World Cup appearance? The task ahead looks daunting for the underdogs, given the calibre of their opponents, who finished third at Canada 2015 and who have their sights set on at least emulating that achievement in France. In his international coaching debut, Phil Neville steered the Three Lions to a creditable second-place finish at the SheBelieves Cup, and he will be anxious to get off to an equally solid start in World Cup qualifying.
4 Germany-Czech Republic, 7 April, 16.15 (CET) There is no doubt that Germany remain one of the most respected teams in the women’s game, but their recent performances have given their fans great cause for concern. Their 3-2 loss at home to Iceland in a World Cup qualifier in October initially appeared to be nothing more than a blip, but their failure to win any of their three matches at the SheBelieves Cup proved that their problems were more deep-seated and cost Steffi Jones her job. It now falls to interim coach Horst Hrubesch to attempt to restore some German pride by masterminding two convincing victories, first over the Czechs, and then over the Slovenians three days later.
5 Republic of Ireland-Netherlands, 10 April, 20.00 (CET) After securing the 2017 UEFA Women’s EURO crown on home soil, the Netherlands were regarded as strong favourites to bag the automatic qualifying spot for France 2019 in Group 3. However, by holding the European champions to a 0-0 draw in November, Ireland demonstrated that teams are now likely to massively raise their game against the Dutch. This is again likely to be the case when the two teams meet in Dublin, where the Irish hope to pick up an even better result. “After the Netherlands game, we’ve all been raring to get back together again because we want to keep the momentum going; we know that there is a major tournament in this team,” Karen Duggan, Ireland’s current Women’s International Player of the Year, told FIFA.com.