Vera Pauw says her Netherlands side have "been breaking through walls every other day" at UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2009™, and her charges will hope to dismantle another obstacle when they meet France in Tampere on Thursday to dispute a semi-final berth that would be unprecedented for both teams.
The Oranje claimed second place in Group A thanks to victories against Ukraine and Denmark, while only slipping up against hosts Finland, and those wins propelled them into the knockout stage of a competition they have not graced since the format was modified in 1997. "The game tomorrow is the most important one ever for us," said Pauw. "We're breaking through walls every other day and the game against France will be another exciting moment to move forward."
Pauw can count on a fully fit squad going into the encounter – "surprisingly, given our three battles" – but she is well aware that whoever she picks can expect a busy evening keeping a lid on France's fluid attacking forays. "France are a very skilful team," she said. "They have a lot of pace in the team and a lot of movement, combined with creativity, which means it will be very difficult for us. But there'll be chances and as always we'll try to take our chances."
The 46-year-old nonetheless has fairly recent experience of overcoming Les Bleues, having overseen a 2-0 triumph on French soil in December 2008, the last time the two sides met. "Last year was a friendly and we have to be honest," warned Pauw. "The core group of their team did not play in the first half. They came on halfway into the second so that makes a difference."
'Long time ago'
Her counterpart Bruno Bini, who is also free of injury worries "for the first time this tournament", was just as reluctant to read anything into that match. "It was an end-of-year game," he said. "The girls were going on holiday afterwards and we had lots of injured players and absentees, as did the Netherlands. Whenever you have to go back six or seven months, it's a long time ago. We won't draw any lessons from that game or the one we won in the Netherlands [4-1 in October 2007]."
Bini's charges booked their own progress by drawing 1-1 with Norway in their final Group B match to finish runners-up behind Germany, and like the Oranje they have not reached the knockout phase since the 1997 change of format. "This will be a high-level match and like all high-level matches, in men's and women's football, it will come down to small details," he explained. "The girls will need to be focused, but they're ready physically, mentally and in terms of technique."
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