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England women poised for World Cup spot

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Lance Hardy | 10:12 UK time, Wednesday, 27 September 2006

England's quest to reach the finals of the 2007 Women's World Cup, reaches its climax this Saturday with a make-or-break clash against France in Rennes, a match which we have live on BBC Three from 1900 BST (kick-off 1930).

Ever since the Women's World Cup qualifying draw was made two years ago it looked likely that this match would determine which country would go to China and so it has proved: England require just a point whilst France have to win. It's set to be a tense and exciting night for all involved.

I have been editing the BBC's television coverage of women's football for five years now and this undoubtedly is the strongest national side I have seen in that time.

England have enjoyed a terrific run of form since the 2005 Women's Euros and currently top the group with six wins from seven games and a healthy goal difference of plus 27.

By contrast, the French have looked rather shaky in qualification. They were beaten at home by Holland early on and only scraped past Austria 2-1 last weekend.

The fact France are still in with chance is by virtue of head-to-head games deciding the group should two teams finish level on points. France are currently three points behind England with a much inferior goal difference. The heartbreaking negative scenario isn't worth pondering. 'So near yet so far' doesn't come close...

England coach Hope Powell feels that her team has as good as won the group already and with a superior goal difference of 16 more than the French it's hard not to feel some sympathy with that view.

But, crucially, the two teams played out a goalless draw at Ewood Park in March. It was the only game in which England have failed to score during the campaign.

And therein lies the catch. Although England have played superbly at times during the past few years - including a record 13-0 thrashing of Hungary in Tapolca last October - they have generally struggled against top class opposition.

France are ranked sixth in the world - six places higher than England - and in Marinette Pichon, they have one of the true greats in the women's game. The hard-worked draw in Blackburn in the spring was a good result for England.

It is 32 years since England beat France. The good news ahead of this weekend, is that a) they don't have to, and b) this is probably their best chance of doing so since 1974. The team definitely now has the talent to do so.

Kelly Smith is now established as one of the best players in the world - her injury was a big factor in the Euros last year - and the forward line of Eniola Aluko, Karen Carney and Rachel Yankey is exciting. Katie Chapman and Fara Williams are experienced midfield players whilst the defence - despite the loss of captain Faye White - has conceded just one goal in seven qualifiers.

Faye is ruled out of Saturday's match through injury but is in Rennes for the BBC providing co-commentary and analysis alongside Guy Mowbray.

Sue Smith, who was a popular studio guest for us in the Women's Euros 2005, is now back in the England squad. She is likely to be on the bench this weekend.

Karen Walker, who played for England in the 1995 World Cup finals in Sweden (the only time England have so far reached the finals) joins Celina Hinchcliffe and Gavin Peacock in the studio at Television Centre.

I saw Karen play as a sole striker in a World Cup finals play-off defeat against France in St Etienne almost four years ago to the day. France were much the better side in that match but what remains in my mind more than anything is the crowd of 26,000 which backed them throughout.

England received similar backing last summer. More than 29,000 were at the City Of Manchester Stadium for England's opening game against Finland whilst a combined TV audience of 8.2m watched the country's three group matches live on BBC Two.

During this current campaign BBC Three has shown England's home games against both France and Hungary and both attracted good audiences.

It promises to be an exciting match on Saturday - both to watch and to work on - because there is so much at stake. A place in the World Cup finals would be a fantastic achievement for England and - there is no doubt - a tremendous boost for women's football in this country.

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