The leading nations in European women's football get in gear for a crucial year this week when they compete in the annual Algarve Cup and Cyprus Women's Cup.
In both cases 12 teams will play four games over an eight-day period, giving them opportunities to face the other top international sides as well as provide emerging talents with invaluable experience. The European countries will also be hoping to keep the trophies on this continent after both were retained by North American teams last year.
Running since 1994, the Algarve Cup starts on Wednesday with the United States aiming for a third straight win, and ninth overall, having beaten Iceland 4-2 in last year’s final. Germany sat out the 2011 edition but return this time with a familiar squad, though including uncapped duo Luisa Wensing and Kathrin Längert, and they begin against Iceland.
We like to come to Portugal because we know that we will play against good teams that will challenge us," Germany coach Silvia Neid said. UEFA Women's EURO 2013 hosts Sweden – the last European side to lift the Algarve Cup in 2009 and without a competitive game until the Olympic tournament also involving France and the United Kingdom in July – and China make up Group A.
Up against the US in Group B on Wednesday are Denmark, while four-time winners Norway tackle world champions Japan. The teams that top each group after further matches on Friday and Monday meet in the final two days later. In addition, there is a third pool, Group C, from which the winners could finish the tournament in seventh*; here, hosts Portugal are joined by Wales and two newcomers, the Republic of Iceland and Hungary.
Kicking off on Tuesday meanwhile, the fourth Cyprus tournament follows the same format with Canada defending the title. The all-European Group A will culminate with a FIFA Women's World Cup quarter-final rematch between France and England, with Switzerland and Finland hoping to upset both.
England trio Fara Williams, Casey Stoney and Rachel Unitt could all win their 100th cap in Cyprus, and manager Hope Powell said: "The priority isn't really a focus on exactly who we are playing, although all three of our group games will undoubtedly be tough, particularly France.
This tournament is more about giving me an opportunity to look at the players and see how they cope in a tournament environment."
Over in Group B, Canada are challenged by Scotland, Italy and the Netherlands. Group C, like in the Algarve Cup not leading to the final, will allow Northern Ireland to build on their impressive UEFA Women's EURO 2013 qualifying performances when they encounter New Zealand, South Korea and South Africa.
After the conclusion of both competitions, the focus will swiftly switch to the next full set of UEFA Women's EURO 2013 qualifiers between 31 March and 4 April. Key matches will include the likely Group 2 decider between Germany and Spain, Scotland's visit to France, Belgium welcoming Iceland, and Denmark travelling to the Czech Republic.
Algarve Cup (29 February–7 March)
Group A: Germany, Iceland, Sweden, China
Group B: Japan, Norway, United States, Denmark
Group C: Portugal, Wales, Republic of Ireland, Hungary
Cyprus Women's Cup (28 February–6 March)
Group A: England, Finland, France, Switzerland
Group B: Canada, Netherlands, Italy, Scotland
Group C: New Zealand, Northern Ireland, South Africa, South Korea
In both tournaments, the final fixtures will be:
Final: A1 v B1
3rd place: A2 v B2
5th place: A3 v B3
7th place: A4/B4* v C1
9th place: A4/B4* v C2
11th place: C3 v C4
*The fourth-placed team with the better record will play the Group C winners for seventh position, the other face the Group C runners-up.
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