FIFA Women's World Cup holders Germany begin the defence of their title on Sunday in the first full programme of qualifiers, as two other UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2005™ finalists start their fixtures and three others hope to build on opening victories.
Germany's first Group 4 game comes in Siegen at home to a Russia side that have already beaten the other three teams in the pool - Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland. Having gained two wins against Canada in her opening friendlies in charge, new Germany coach Silvia Nied is missing two key players - veteran defender Steffi Jones and inspirational striker Conny Pohlers.
Praise for Russia
Neid, who succeeded Tina Theune-Meyer after Germany successfully held on to their European crown, said: "We had Russia watched twice in the 6-0 win against Scotland and their 2-0 win against Switzerland. They are a skilful side and it definitely won't be an easy match." Annike Krahn and Pia Wunderlich have stepped up to replace Jones and Pohlers, and Neid added: "We all know how important Steffi and Conny are. They are both excellent players but Annike can replace Steffi and Pia often plays the same position as Conny in the Bundesliga." Scotland also meet Ireland on Sunday.
The day before, France start their campaign for a second straight qualification at home to Group 5 rivals Netherlands. It is a tough group for France, also containing an England side who won their opener against Austria. Les Bleues warmed up well by beating Ireland 6-0 earlier this month, as they begin life without retired centre-back Corinne Diacre and striker Stéphanie Mugneret-Béghé
Coach Elisabeth Loisel, whose side drew a friendly 0-0 against the Dutch in April, said: "We know what to expect in terms of physical impact with their five defenders. We'll have to play patiently." Stalwart striker Marinette Pichon and midfielder Sandrine Soubeyrand remain in the squad, while elsewhere in the pool Austria visit Hungary.
Also on Saturday, Italy hope to repeat their qualification for EURO 2005™ as they begin their Group 1 games against Ukraine. Pietro Ghedin, who took over as coach from Carolina Morace after the Azzurre lost all their three games in England, said: "The girls have worked well and with commitment. The group is not an easy one, since only the first-placed team will qualify and Norway are the favorites. We will do all we can."
EURO runners-up Norway, who have reached at least the quarter-finals in all four previous World Cups, began their bid to qualify for China with a win against Ukraine and on Saturday go to Serbia and Montenegro. Meanwhile, their fellow Scandinavians Denmark and Finland both aim to gain second wins in Group 3, the Finns playing host to Belgium on Saturday and the Danes welcoming Belgium a day later.
In the other of the five groups producing World Cup qualifiers, two teams beaten in the EURO play-offs, the Czech Republic and Iceland, meet. Iceland are top of their pool thanks to a win against Belarus and an impressive 2-2 draw at 2003 World Cup runners-up Sweden. The Swedes welcome Belarus to the Norrvalla stadium in Skellefteå later on Saturday.
Groups 6-8 each have four teams competing to earn the chance for promotion to the main pools. In Group 6, leading pair Croatia and Slovenia play, while Estonia travel to Moldova in Group 8.
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