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Starting with the Finnish as big year kicks off . . .

A LOW-KEY friendly in Finland today kicks off what could be a momentous 2014 for Anna Signeul and her Scotland team.

Anna Signeul coaches Scotland ahead of today's friendly. Picture: SNS
Anna Signeul coaches Scotland ahead of today's friendly. Picture: SNS

At stake in the coming months is a place in next year's Women's World Cup in Canada, and having come so close to qualifying for Euro 2013 Signeul and the players are determined to deliver.

"This is the year when we have the chance to make a breakthrough," Signeul, who is approaching the ninth anniversary of her appointment as Scotland coach, confirmed. "It's important for the players to realise they have to step up a level."

When the World Cup qualifying draw was made, Signeul wanted to avoid three of the seven top seeds - European champions Germany, France and her native Sweden. Almost inevitably Scotland were drawn in Group 4 with the Swedes.

With only one team from each group to automatically qualify, the play-offs may represent the best chance, even though only one more place is available. It is tough, but having risen to 20th in the FIFA rankings Scotland now have the platform from which to achieve their goal.

A convincing start to the group, with maximum points and 20 goals scored in the opening four games, has offered hope that Scotland could qualify without any play-off drama but Signeul has always played that outcome down. "Of course it's possible that we can do it, but I know how good Sweden are," she responds without a hint of native jingoism.

Achieving the highest-ever FIFA ranking is just another step in the direction Signeul wants to take Scotland. Until very recently she was dealing with a squad of essentially amateur players, even if they trained harder and more often than the players at most Scottish senior men's clubs. That has all changed.

Thanks to Scottish government support, most of the home-based players were recently released from full-time day jobs and now work part-time. Signeul has always believed her players were technically able to compete, but lacked the physical attributes of the Swedes and other top nations. That gap will be narrowed with the help of individual fitness programmes devised by the Scottish Institute of Sport.

Nevertheless, a potentially bigger leap forward has been taken by the players who have secured professional contracts outwith Scotland. When Signeul announced her initial 17-player squad for today's game in Finland, no fewer than eight played for non-Scottish clubs. A ninth, central defender Ifeoma Dieke, has still not fully recovered from a serious knee injury sustained at the London Olympics.

With another two, and possibly three, Scotland players believed to be on the verge of moves, this could be the last squad Signeul picks which has a majority of home players. She admits there are two sides to this coin. "The obvious negative is that the league here is losing some really good players and that could demotivate coaches," she says. "The positive is that full-time professional contracts are hard to come by, so it's a huge accolade that a small country like Scotland now has nine.

"That can only help them to improve. It also gives credibility to our programme for developing players, and the good news is that we have talented young ones coming through all the time."

Scotland played 18 games in 2013, winning eight, drawing two and losing eight. At first glance the results look - literally - average but they mask the calibre of the opponents and the fact that only three (all won) were played at home.

Competing against top-ranked countries has always been regarded by Signeul as a valuable learning experience and last year her side faced the United States (No.1 in the FIFA rankings) twice, Germany (2), Brazil (4) and Canada (7) twice. All five games were lost but Scotland beat higher-ranked teams in Italy, Holland and Iceland, while drawing with England.

The upside was that when it came to playing much weaker teams in the World Cup qualifiers Scotland breezed through all four games.

"I definitely think we have a huge chance to qualify for Canada - but we need all our best players fit," Signeul said. "Although we are developing younger players, we still have a limited pool for the senior team."

The match against Finland looks an evenly-balanced affair. The Scots overtook the Finns (23) in the rankings last year but today's opponents made the finals of Euro 2013 and provide a similar physical challenge to Sweden.

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