By Pete Sanderson at Halliwell Jones stadium
A second-half onslaught from defending champions Germany in Warrington left France's dreams of clinching a UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2005™ semi-final place in tatters.
The French seemed well on course after having the better of the opening hour but collapsed in the closing stages. Inka Grings broke the deadlock in the 72nd minute and Sarah Bouhaddi soon brought down Birgit Prinz in the area, allowing Renate Lingor to double Germany's advantage. Sandra Minnert completed the scoring with a 20-metre free-kick to book a semi-final date with Finland and condemn France to third in the group behind Norway, who beat Italy 5-3 in Preston.
Germany began their final group game knowing a draw would be enough to confirm them as pool winners. If France were to meet Group A runners-up Finland, they would have to beat the world champions, with a draw booking them second place and a semi-final with Sweden - defeat left their destiny in the hands of Norway 20 kilometres down the road. France coach Elisabeth Loisel signalled her intentions from the start leaving striker Hoda Lattaf on the bench alongside Elise Bussaglia and bringing in midfielders Camille Abily and Louisa Necib as replacements. Germany made just one change from the team which beat Italy 4-0, selecting Inka Grings for knee-injury victim Kerstin Stegemann.
The game began at an invigorating pace, Prinz mustering the first real chance of the afternoon, cutting in from the left before rifling a low shot just wide of Bouhaddi's upright. Despite talk of Germany's invincibility, it was the French who displayed the more hunger and desire in the early exchanges, with Necib's sweetly struck effort forcing Rottenberg to fumble the ball and Sandrine Soubeyrand's raking passes from her position at the heart of the French midfield justifying Loisel's decision to switch to a 4-5-1 formation.
It was developing into a titantic tussle with both sides playing arguably the highest standard of football since the tournament began seven days ago. As the game continued at a breathless pace, the Germans retaliated with two glorious chances in quick succession both arriving from pinpoint set-pieces. First a dangerously flighted free-kick from Lingor forced Soubeyrand to head the ball on to her own bar, then Prinz's instinctive shot was fumbled by Bouhaddi but the goalkeeper more than made up for it with two point-blank saves from Conny Pohlers.
With Norway leading Italy 4-1 at half-time, France knew they would clinch that place in the last four if they could hold out for another 45 minutes. It could have been so different had Pichon been more decisive when the ball fell at her feet just one metre from goal but Rottenberg did just enough to put the striker off before smothering the ball. Pichon threatened again soon after, racing clear following a wonderful reverse pass from Sonia Bompastor but this time her stinging shot nestled in the side-netting.
As the game wore on the French began to tire and never recovered from Grings's opener, created by Kerstin Garefrekes's cross following a strong run down the right. Germany could relax after Lingor stroked in her penalty, and Minnert completed a magical eleven minutes for the holders by curling in a third which ended France's involvement in England.