Hope in Powell's squad as England chase semi-final spot

What a difference an hour makes. A task that at one stage looked monumental for England in their final group game of the European Women's Championship against Sweden tonight has turned into a somewhat less arduous challenge - courtesy of the lowest-ranked country in the tournament.

No sooner had Hope Powell's team slumped to defeat against Denmark in those 10 desperate final minutes at Ewood Park on Wednesday than outsiders Finland were doing the host nation a massive favour a few miles up the road at Blackpool by holding the Swedes, World Cup runners-up, to a 0-0 draw.

Suddenly, gloom and anxiety turned to genuine hope among Powell's squad. For now, instead of having to beat the Swedes to reach the semi-finals - something England's women have not done for 21 years - a draw should be enough tonight.

Not that even one point will be easy. Sweden, who beat England on penalties in the final of the inaugural event in 1984, came into the tournament as second favourites behind defending champions Germany and will leave nothing to chance in the winner-takes-all showdown.

Such is the tightness of England's group that any of the four participants are still theoretically capable of making the semi-finals. Denmark lead the table with four points, England have three, Sweden two and Finland one. To make things even more spicy, both of tonight's fixtures kick off at the same time.

Vicki Exley, the senior member of the England squad who replaced Kelly Smith for the second half on Wednesday, says belief is high despite the gut-wrenching defeat against the Danes, whose own coach could scarcely believe the result. "We all know a draw will do the job but we will still be trying to beat Sweden," said Exley. "The spirit is great and we feel we can beat anyone."

The defending champions, Germany, have been powering through the competition like a juggernaut in the other half of the draw, another reason why England will be keen to top their group and avoid meeting Tina Theune-Meyer's team, spearheaded by the lethal Birgit Prinz, in the semi-finals. Prinz became her country's all-time leading scorer with her 84th international goal in the 4-0 rout of Italy on Thursday.

Powell is wary, however, of looking that far ahead. The objective was always to reach the last four and a tense affair beckons against the powerful Swedes who have so far under-performed.

"Going into the tournament Sweden were overwhelming favourites to progress from the group, but they have to beat us to go through now," Powell said. "If the fans are anything like they have been already, they'll give the players a great lift."

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