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By Pete Sanderson in Preston
Although most of Europe's eyes will be firmly fixed on the game taking place 30km down the road where UEFA European Women's Championship holders Germany take on former winners Norway, the other Group B tie between France and Italy in Preston will provide a fascinating sideshow.
France's preparations for this tournament have been scrupulous to say the least. Not only did they arrive in England two days before most of their rivals had even stepped on a plane, but coach Elisabeth Loisel is keeping everybody – including some of her close allies in the French camp – in the dark as to who will start this evening's match.
Perhaps the reason behind France's secretive approach is their failure to go beyond the last eight in previous competitions. Incredibly, Les Bleues have not qualified from the group stage at a major tournament in three attempts. But livewire striker Marinette Pichon, who made her international bow in 1994, believes the current team are far better equipped than previous sides to progress this time around. "We've definitely made progress," said the 29-year-old. "Our results have improved slowly and, as a consequence, more people in France are interested in women's football today.
There are several players in the current squad who could really make a name for themselves over the next two weeks," she said. "I don't want to give anything away. If I gave you names, our opponents would then pay extra attention to those players." Midfield pair Sandrine Soubeyrand and Stéphanie Mugneret-Béghé, team-mates of Pichon at Juvisy FCF, are widely regarded as being key to French hopes, as is experienced defender Corinne Diacre. Nevertheless, Pichon remains the one name that really strikes fear in the hearts of opponents.
Even better news for Loisel came when the team doctor reported a clean bill of health ahead of the Italy game, enabling her to choose from a full squad of 20. "It will be a tough match," said the coach. "Italy have some great individuals but we must concentrate on our own game as we believe we can get off to a perfect start if we play at our best." Loisel is expected to adopt a 4-4-2 formation with Sonia Bompastor captaining the side from midfield and Pichon partnering Hoda Lattaf in attack.
By contrast, Italy have one major doubt going into the game at Preston North End FC's Deepdale stadium, with forward Patrizia Panico set to undergo a late fitness test. Panico's absence would be a huge blow for coach Carolina Morace, as the striker's goals helped fire Italy to this year's finals via a play-off with the Czech Republic.
Panico is a special player," Morace told uefa.com. "She is our captain and she is strong on the ball and a real predator in the box. She will be very important to our challenge for glory in England and if we are to be at full strength we need her fully fit." Italy are expected to line up in a 4-4-2 with Panico, fitness pending, playing alongside Ilaria Pasqui.
France (possible): Sandrine Capy or Céline Deville; Sabrina Viguier, Corinne Diacre, Peggy Provost, Laura Georges; Sonia Bompastor (c), Stéphanie Mugneret-Béghé, Sandrine Soubeyrand, Elise Bussaglia; Marinette Pichon, Hoda Lattaf.
Italy (probable): Carla Brunozzi; Elena Ficarelli, Guilia Perelli, Elisabetta Tona, Gioia Masia; Tatiana Zorri, Sara Di Filippo, Damiana Deiana, Elisa Camporese; Ilaria Pasqui, Patrizia Panico (Valentina Boni if Panico fails fitness test).
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