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By Kevin Ashby in Preston
France are a win away from advancing to the knockout stages of a UEFA European Women's Championship for the first time and would relish recording it against the team that has knocked them out of the last two major tournaments, Norway.
Older and wiser
Les Bleues were beaten by the Norwegians in the group stage of this competition four years ago and subsequently lost to the Scandinavian side on their FIFA Women's World Cup debut in 2003, dashing any hopes of progress in the United States. As well as being two years older, this France team is two years wiser and confident of building on Monday's opening 3-1 victory against Italy, in Warrington on Thursday.
"A lot of people have said we need to get revenge on Norway for results in the past but that is history - we will treat them with respect but we will also look to impose our game on them," France coach Elisabeth Loisel told uefa.com. "We have some talented attackers and they have a strong defence but I think we can win. We're mentally very positive and go into the game feeling we have a psychological advantage."
That advantage stems from a fine all-round display against Italy and Norway's 1-0 defeat by Germany. "I thought the 4-4-1-1 formation against Italy made us difficult to deal with in the attacking areas and this is something we will look to do again to unsettle Norway," added Loisel, who again has a full squad to select from as Sandrine Dusang has overcome a knee injury.
With a final Group B encounter looming against Germany on Sunday, Loisel feels "it is especially important to get something from this game". Yet victory is even more imperative for the Norwegians after they failed to capitalise on a number of presentable openings against the holders on Monday. "We played a very good game against Germany, which makes it all the more disappointing that we lost," coach Bjarne Berntsen told uefa.com.
The 48-year-old former Norway defender and Viking FK coach replaced Åge Steen at the helm in December and first led the side in two friendlies against France in February. The French won the first 2-0 – a maiden success against Norway after 24 years of trying – and repeated the feat three days later, but Berntsen warned: "We're much better now than we were at La Manga. They were my first matches and I tried a lot of new players and new formations. France will face a team which is much better prepared."
This fixture always had the air of a decider about it, and Berntsen said, "it's a situation which we were well aware of". The key contest will see Norway's central defensive pairing attempt to nullify a French forward line of Marinette Pichon and Hoda Lataff which impressed hugely on Monday. "Their two front players are extremely dangerous and France have a couple of midfielders who add to their attacking strength," Berntsen said.
When asked if the French have any weaknesses, his answer was more succinct: "I hope so."
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