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Aug 15, 2006

Hard to bet against Germany

With the first U-20 Women's World Championships (previously, the tournament was U-19), taking place in Russia from Aug. 17 to Sept. 3, the women's game provides a sneak peek to the stars of tomorrow. However, success on the senior level isn't always preceded by stardom at the youth level. For instance, Norway, ranked third in the world, isn't even in the tournament.

Still, it's usually a fair indicator of upcoming talent and definitely a preview of the increased competitiveness in the women's game.

Here's how the groups stack up.

Group A

Group A is quite a competitive bunch, though Brazil should emerge as the obvious favorite. That's due not only to its creative team play, but the strength and leadership of Marta, the only team member with substantial international experience (she plays professionally in Sweden).

Russia should be buoyed by partisan support as host. Elvira Todua is a force to be reckoned with in goal, while Elena Danilova fronts the attack for the Russians, which is potent enough that Russia may again sneak into the final.

New Zealand coach John Herdman may be building for the future with his Kiwi players. Three are just 15 years old: Annalie Longo, Caitlin Campbell and Merissa Smith. If the squad can get a good result against familiar foe Australia in its first match, this may give the youngsters confidence to pull off an upset.

Sally Shipard, Australia's young captain, will do everything she can to stop that from happening -- and the tougher competition the squad has faced in its new Asian conference should have the team ready to compete. Australia may not have enough firepower to knock off the top seeds, but they will give them a battle.

Prediction: Russia and Brazil go through.

Group B

This bunch is probably worthy of the infamous "Group of Death" tag, due to the close quality of all the teams involved.

Canada is stacked with talent, but captain Sophie Schmidt should shine in all the team's efforts. She leads a new generation of young talent that will look to use its international performances as the calling card to become the new generation for Canada's full national team. Nine of the group on the roster play for the Vancouver Whitecaps, so that should aid the team cohesion on the field.

China has stumbled a bit in its recent results in the women's game -- disappointments that only rank as such compared to their traditional excellence. The Steel Rosebuds, who surprised the world with a runner-up performance in the last U-19 championship in Thailand, will be looking to restore the program's reputation with a good showing in Russia. For striker Ma Xiaoxu, the heir apparent to Sun Wen, the tournament is a chance to establish her own legacy.

There's a chance that the other teams in this group will overlook a feisty Finland squad. If so, Finnish star Linda Sallstrom could make them pay. Even when left isolated as a lone striker, she is talented enough to make an impact. With more help in the attack, she is even more effective.

The surprise of this group, however, could be Africa's consistent performer, Nigeria. The Baby Falcons have an experienced and deep squad, headlined by Cynthia Uwak, Akudo Iwuagwu and Akudo Sabi. Idiki Faith, who plies her trade in Sweden, is another steady performer for the team. Their speed on the field is nearly unrivaled.

Prediction: Canada and Nigeria move on, one by goal differential.

Group C

The most entertaining soccer may well be played by teams who won't advance in the tournament. Group C is a showcase of prodigies, but the experience of the indomitable Germans should win out.

Germany is the defending World Cup champion, top-ranked team in the women's game and the defending U-19 champions. Its pedigree is firmly established, and the likes of Celia Okoyino Da Mbabi and Anna Blaesse, and Josephine Schlanke are carefully groomed by coach Maren Meinert to continue the country's success. Athletic and technical, the Germans are destroyers of other team's hopes for the title.

The North Koreans bring one of the most experienced squads to the table, one that impresses with its steadiness and team awareness. Un Suk Ri is a savvy forward who has been central to the team's advance in the Asian region.

Mexico may not make it out of the group stage, but it may have the most exciting player in the entire tournament. Verónica Charlín Corral was the high scorer of the CONCACAF tournament, even as powerhouse teams like the U.S. and Canada were polishing off lesser competition like Trinidad and Tobago by high scores. The soccer prodigy has impressed, especially at only 14 years of age, and she continues to spark her team with her blistering pace and creative moves.

Switzerland, meanwhile, has quietly compiled a list of improving results, including a draw against Germany earlier this year. Vanessa Burk is a quality striker, but the midfield of the Swiss unfortunately bears some resemblance to the famous cheese.

Prediction: Germany and Korea DPR to advance

Group D

The matchups should be interesting in this final group, because the U.S. has never faced any of the other teams. With that said, Tim Schultz guides a group that is tough and savvy, becoming the first U.S team to win the CONCACAF championship at its age level after coming from a goal down and while down a player in the final versus Canada.

Behind the offensive talent of Lauren Cheney, Jess Rostedt and Amy Rodriguez, the team should be able to take on all comers. Captain Stephanie Lopez leads a stingy defense that also contributes to the attack. If the Americans can avoid the unexpected breakaways by the opposition and the emotional tackles that can lead to game-changing calls, they are strong contenders for the final.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, meanwhile, is probably merely happy to be in Russia. The energetic and quick team is the youngest overall in the tournament. Vumongo Nzuzi is a prolific striker who will be looking to show her team's tournament appearance is no fluke.

France comes into the tournament as the perennial contender that always gives the top teams a tough game, but never quite seems to defeat them. Nevertheless, the recent senior team experience of Sarah Bouhaddi, Elodie Thomis and Louisa Necib should help give the squad the maturity to put in another good performance.

Argentina's squad wishes to prove that they are coming of age in South America. The young "Albiceleste" pushed Brazil in their qualifying tournament. The team has the tournament's youngest player on their roster in Amancay Urbani who is only 14, but will depend more on the skilled ball play of midfielder and captain Florencia Quiñones.

Prediction: The U.S. and France should be the two top teams in this group.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com, lasoccernews.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com