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By Kevin Ashby in Preston
Norway will get an early chance to tackle the team which has usurped them as this continent's finest when they open UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2005™ Group B against Germany today.
The Halliwell Jones stadium in Warrington usually plays host to rugby league and its inauguration as an international football venue could hardly have brought together two more revered women's teams. The Norwegians are the only nation to win this competition, the FIFA Women's World Cup and claim Olympic gold, while Germany are the reigning world champions and have won four of the last six European Championships, Norway claiming the other two.
This tournament represents something of a crossroads for the Scandinavian side, however, as they are in the middle of ushering in the next generation of talent. "This is a very young Norway squad and only four of the players which won gold in 2000 in Sydney remain," said coach Bjarne Berntsen. "Those players know what it's all about - like how important it is to relax. If you concentrate fully 24 hours a day then you're too tired for the matches and we need all 20 players in top condition."
One of those veterans, goalkeeper Bente Nordby, is one of the few Norwegian players who can remember what it is like to defeat Germany when it matters having done so in the 1995 World Cup final. Her coach does not envisage a repeat of that 2-0 success on Monday, however: "We start with our toughest game, but no one expects anything from us so maybe that's good news. I think France and Italy are at a similar level to us, meaning a great competition for second place."
It is difficult to look beyond Germany as not only the favourites for this pool but the tournament as a whole. As coach Tina Theune-Meyer said: "Anything less than reaching the final would be a disappointment. We have eight players in our squad who were part of the [1. FFC] Turbine Potsdam team which won the UEFA Women's Cup. We are the world champions at Under-19 level and have in our ranks the FIFA Women's Player of the Year, Birgit Prinz."
The fitness of Prinz has been Germany's only concern since arriving in England on Friday night as the striker continues her struggle to overcome a thigh injury sustained in 1. FFC Frankfurt's German Cup final loss to Potsdam on 28 May. The 27-year-old said: "The injury is improving every day but we need to think of the whole tournament and I plan to be back to face Italy [on Thursday]."
Should Prinz miss out, Conny Pohlers - the outstanding player as Potsdam won the UEFA Women's Cup last month - is likely to move into a more advanced position alongside club-mate Petra Wimbersky with another Potsdam player, Anja Mittag, dropping into midfield. At 20, Mittag is the youngest German squad member and the sole representative from the side which won the FIFA U-19 Women's World Championship trophy in Bangkok last November - underlining the country's "astonishing" reserves of talent.
Germany (possible): Silke Rottenberg; Kerstin Stegemann, Ariane Hingst, Steffi Jones, Sandra Minnert; Kerstin Garefrekes, Navina Omilade, Renate Lingor, Conny Pohlers; Birgit Prinz/Anja Mittag, Petra Wimbersky
Norway (possible): Bente Nordby; Marianne Paulsen, Marit Fiane Christensen, Ane Stangeland (c), Gunhild Følstad; Solveig Gulbrandsen, Ingvild Stensland, Trine Rønning; Dagny Mellgren, Stine Frantzen, Unni Lehn.
Referee: Nicole Petignat (Switzerland)
Assistants: Elke Lüthi (Switzerland), Yolanda Parga (Spain).
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