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By Pete Sanderson in Blackburn
As the only European country to have tasted success at continental, world and Olympic levels, Norway may feel slightly aggrieved to go into the UEFA WOMEN'S EURO 2005™ final at Ewood Park billed as underdogs.
But seldom has the women's game seen a force as formidable as their opponents, Germany, who stand just one victory away from winning their fourth consecutive UEFA European Women's Championship, having swept aside all that has been put before them before crushing Finland 4-1 in the semi-final.
Norway coach Bjarne Berntsen certainly is not fazed by their outsiders' tag. "You have to accept they are the big favourites and that's fine by me," he told uefa.com. "It takes the pressure off us and if I am totally honest, they probably deserve to be favourites if you look at their results in the tournament so far. But we have the belief in our squad that we can beat them and after our performance against Sweden, anything is possible."
Berntsen has the luxury of selecting from a fully-fit squad, going into a game he describes as "one of the biggest in my managerial career". His only concern lies with the fact some of his key players are suffering from fatigue after their unforgettable semi-final victory over Sweden went into extra time.
Since the Sweden game I have looked closely at my players to see if they are fit enough to play Germany," he said. "Those kind of games take it out of you both physically and mentally and the Germans are a very fit side and had an extra day of rest. Hopefully that won't give them an advantage but we certainly won't be using it as an excuse."
These teams have already crossed paths in Group B of the final tournament. In that tactical duel, it was Germany who prevailed by a single goal in a closely-fought contest. Berntsen still believes that was Norway's best performance in England so far and, if fortune favours them as it did when they beat Germany 1-0 in July 2004 in a Hoffenheim friendly, they could yet topple the German juggernaut.
"We put on a great show in that opening game," he said. "We looked sharp going forward and we made sure we were tough to break down. But we have a good record against Germany and I really believe we can go on and win this tournament from here."
Ten wins each
Having won their last two meetings, however, Germany coach Tina Theune-Meyer may wish to dispute Berntsen's view that Norway can upset the odds. Yet in their 24 previous encounters, the sides are practically inseparable, with ten victories each.
Although defender Kerstin Stegemann is now back home recovering from a knee operation, defending champions Germany have no fresh injury doubts going into a match which could win Theune-Meyer her fourth and final major trophy since succeeding Gero Bisanz in 1996. She will step down after the final.
It would mean so much to us if we could win this tournament," she told uefa.com. "I like Norway. They play a similar system to ourselves with three forwards and they are never scared to attack. They showed they could match us for most of the opening game but I think we can play better than we did that day." It promises to be a fascinating tussle between two of international football's most powerful heavyweights.
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