Group C at the 2023 Women’s World Cup contains one of the favourites, Spain. They kick off against Costa Rica on 21 July, before Zambia and Japan tussle a day later.
So, what should we expect from the teams in Group C?
Spain are still reeling from last year’s player revolt that saw 15 stand down from international football in an attempt to force internal changes after the UEFA Women’s Euro 2022 quarter-final defeat to England. Only three of those 15 are in the squad for the World Cup.
This will be just Spain’s third appearance at the Women’s World Cup, and their previous two efforts ended in the group stage and second round respectively.
While some key players have returned, including double Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas from injury, head coach Jorge Vilda may still have to contend with a fractured camp and awkward questions. But for one month he still possesses one of the most talented squads in the tournament; it just remains to be seen what he can do with them.
Drawn alongside Japan, Zambia and Costa Rica, it’s a group Spain should be able to navigate, and in reality, anything less than a quarter-final would be a failure with the players available, even if the likes of Mapi León and Patri Guijarro are continuing to hold firm in their absences.
The discontent within the Spain squad has been known for a while, whether it’s related to the perceived level of support from the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) or its steadfast backing of Vilda despite players raising concerns about various matters and the direction of the team.
For a few years now, this generation has been considered Spain’s best. A myriad of superstars from a very successful Barcelona side have teamed up with some of the best from the likes of Real Madrid, Atlético Madrid, Levante and others, yet what do they have to show for it?
It’s easy to forget they went closer than anyone to knocking the Lionesses out of Euro 2022 last summer and likely would have had it not been for Ella Toone’s late equaliser. But it was their tendency to retreat back into their shell under Vilda rather than go for the jugular which saw them throw away a lead they very much deserved for most of the game.
While the likes of Aitana Bonmatí and Mariona Caldentey have returned after their stints away from the team, Vilda actually seemed to get a tune out of those relied upon in the absence of so many key names, even beating world champions United States at the end of last year.
It may be looked upon as a positive that some star names have returned, but will they instantly slot back in? And what underlying tension between them and the coach/federation will still linger?
If Spain click into gear, they should overcome what is a potentially tricky group. Former world champions Japan are rebuilding nicely and have an exciting team, while Zambia’s attack is also capable of causing the best teams problems.
Nevertheless, Vilda will be expected to guide this team to top spot.
If they do win the section, they will avoid the side of the draw that could include all of England, France and Germany. In that scenario, awaiting them would potentially be a second-round game against co-hosts New Zealand or Norway, either of whom would provide a thorough examination of Spain’s credentials.
Get through that and their worst-case quarter-final would likely be Sweden. While still tough, it’d be winnable for a side with as much quality as Spain.
Vilda has been heavily backed by the RFEF, though elimination before the quarter-finals would surely spell the end of this turbulent tenure.
Vilda didn’t select Real Sociedad’s Amaiur Sarriegi, despite her being Spain’s top scorer during qualification with 11 goals.
However, he does have Levante’s Alba Redondo. She may not have announced herself on the global scene yet, but this will be her big opportunity on the back of a stellar season at club level.
Redondo was not just the top scorer in Spain last season – with 27 goals – but anywhere in Europe’s top five leagues. Her 25 non-penalty goals tied Racheal Kundananji of Zambia, who she will face in Group C.
The 26-year-old Redondo proved a particularly reliable penalty-box striker, with all but two of her 27 coming inside the area. Additionally, of the 30 league games she played, Redondo found the back of the net in 19 of them, the highest percentage (63.3%) of any player in Europe’s top leagues.
With an embarrassment of riches in attacking areas, there’s no guarantee Redondo will get the starting role, but her season in Spain gives her a great chance of leading the frontline at the tournament.
The only concern may be how clinical she is. That might sound a little daft for someone who scored 27 goals, but those came from 137 shots, giving her a conversion rate (18%) that was lower than a lot of her fellow strikers.
It’s not just in attack where Spain will be dangerous during this World Cup, because their midfield and defence are stacked with quality too.
Full-back Ona Batlle has just re-joined childhood club Barcelona after a successful two-year spell in England with Manchester United, and she’s coming into the World Cup off the best season of her career.
Batlle’s nine assists was the joint-second highest in the Women’s Super League (WSL) last term, and by far the best of any right-back.
She also created 36 chances and was a very positive outlet on the flank, carrying the ball further than any other player, with a total carry distance of 2,581 metres.
In midfield, the brilliant Bonmatí more than made up for the absence of Putellas while she was injured, taking on a starring role for both club and country in the heart of the pitch.
Bonmatí ranked among the best in Europe, only behind a few of her club teammates, for successful passes into the final third last season. She was a threat in front of goal too, scoring five goals during Barcelona’s Champions League campaign, and leading the way with seven assists to top things off.
As her stats show, Bonmatí was much more involved than anyone else in Barcelona’s attacking sequences last season, and a player now considered as one of the very best could well be set for a huge summer.
Are Japan back?
Time will tell. It could be a tournament too early for an exciting and emerging young side, but this is certainly a sleeping giant full of potential.
There’s been plenty of change since their two finals in 2011 and 2015, the first of which ended in a shock World Cup triumph. But they are now looking to put a disappointing 2019 behind them under head coach Futoshi Ikeda.
Some familiar faces remain, such as new Roma recruit Saki Kumagai, but the former Lyon and Bayern Munich star is the only name in this squad over the age of 30, and that’s why there is so much promise in this new-look Japan side.
Japan have always been a possession-based team, and with their current midfield options, that’s quite a scary thought for their opponents.
Among them are Manchester City’s Yui Hasegawa, who was named in our WSL Team of the Season, Portland Thorns sensation Hina Sugita, fellow NWSL emerging star Jun Endo, and several other WSL names such as West Ham United’s Honoka Hayashi and Liverpool’s Fuka Nagano.
Hasegawa has been the standout over the past 12 months, and her efforts in the league after joining City didn’t go unnoticed.
Playing in a deeper role than normal, Hasegawa excelled when it came to regaining possession, ranking in the top six for recoveries in the league last season with 159 across the campaign.
But she never lost the creative influence that makes her so dangerous, holding the second highest pass completion rate for a player with over 1,000 passes attempted, at 88.6%.
Also pay attention to MyNavi Sendai’s Hinata Miyazawa, who created 13 chances at last year’s Asian Cup, a tally only beaten by Hasegawa, but Miyazwa’s total was the most from open play in the tournament.
A New Frontline
You can have a good midfield, but you need top attackers to make the most of it. Ikeda just happens to have a couple of gems in his squad.
Much of the focus may be on exciting 19-year-old Maika Hamano due to her high-profile move to Chelsea in January, and she will certainly be one to watch, but Riko Ueki is equally worth looking at this summer.
The Tokyo Verdy Beleza forward was the top scorer in the WE-League last season, and in last year’s Asian Cup scored five goals during Japan’s run to the semi-finals, a tally only bettered by Chelsea and Australia striker Sam Kerr.
Ueki is also a creative influence, laying on nine chances to teammates during last year’s tournament, ranking her in the top five. If Japan’s midfield and attack click into gear this tournament, it may be a very fruitful summer indeed for a team that could become a force again over the next few years.
Having burst onto the international scene at the delayed Tokyo Olympics two years ago, Zambia are back for a crack at the World Cup for the first time, one of the eight debut nations in this year’s tournament.
With an exciting attack and a bit more reason to be optimistic in defence after an exciting but porous display in Japan in 2021, Zambia look well-equipped to spring a surprise if things go their way, even with the difficult draw.
After a run to third place at last year’s Africa Cup of Nations, Zambia will be hoping to showcase the progress they’ve made since Tokyo.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to know what to expect from them as they go into the tournament shrouded in controversy, with head coach Bruce Mwape under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct.
Depth Up Front
Two years ago, it was striker Barbra Banda who grabbed the headlines as she scored a hat-trick against the Netherlands and then followed it up with another treble in a thrilling 4-4 draw with China.
Banda will still lead the line this summer, but many eyes will also be on Madrid CFF’s Kundananji, the explosive forward who was one of the top scorers in Europe last season.
Her final-day brace against Barcelona to stop the Catalan giants going a second successive season unbeaten should have sufficiently whet the appetite.
Kundananji scored an incredible 25 goals for a side not challenging for Champions League qualification, and none were spot-kicks, which equalled the non-penalty tally of Spain’s Redondo.
She pipped fellow African strikers Tabitha Chawinga and Asisat Oshoala for goals, and all of her attacking stats were comparable to the very best. She’s also shown herself to be capable of scoring all kinds of goals.
Zambia also have her Madrid CFF teammate Grace Chanda. She attempted the most shots and registered the most efforts on target over the whole Africa Cup of Nations tournament last year, certainly playing her part in that third-place finish with two goals and an assist.
Between them, Chanda, Banda and Kunandanji can cause chaos for even the best teams.
Shoring Things Up
While Zambia were entertaining to watch two years ago, they can’t afford a repeat of the 15 goals they conceded in those three games if they are to make it out of the group stage this summer.
Their recent enthralling 3-3 draw from 3-1 down against Switzerland hinted little’s changed and that we may still see two sides to Zambia depending on which half of the pitch the ball is in, but last year’s AFCON does give some reason for optimism.
Zambia didn’t concede a single goal from open play in the whole tournament, with their three goals against coming from two free-kicks and a penalty. The opposition will be stronger overall on the world stage, but it hints things are moving in the right direction.
A tough task awaits Costa Rica as they return to the World Cup after qualifying for the first time since 2015, and head coach Amelia Valverde has already caused a splash by leaving out experienced captain Shirley Cruz.
The former Lyon and PSG star retired at the end of the season, with the World Cup teed up as her swansong, but that decision was taken out of her hands.
Costa Rica find themselves in a tough group, but they have a handful of players competing in some of the world’s top leagues, while many are starring in Mexico’s emerging Liga MX Femenil.
They may be the unfancied side of the group, but is there reason for cautious optimism?
In terms of established names you might recognise in Valverde’s squad, most are in this area.
Portland Thorns star Raquel Rodríguez is the talisman of the Costa Rican squad with 55 goals in her 100 caps, and she’s teamed with Melissa Herrera, who continues to thrive as both a goalscoring and creative midfielder for Bordeaux in France.
They have additional experience in vice-captain Katherine Alvarado, with the 32-year-old sitting on 125 caps. Costa Rica have only scored three World Cup goals and she assisted two of them, both eight years ago. Alvarado also netted twice during their 2022 CONCACAF Championship campaign, which saw them qualify for this tournament.
If Costa Rica are to have any success in this tournament, midfield will be crucial.
Diamond in the Rough
A name more familiar to those in the United Kingdom will be Glasgow City’s Priscila Chinchilla.
The attacking midfielder is only 21 years old but has already scored 20 goals for her country and is fast approaching her 50th cap, showing the level of talent she has at such a young age.
Complementing the forward line, which includes the young and exciting María Paula Salas, Chinchilla could be one to watch this tournament, whether you’re an SWPL fan or not.
Chinchilla scored 12 goals and was a constant attacking threat in Scotland last season, having 76 shots for the eventual champions. She’s more than capable of creating too, with her 42 chances set up for teammates ranking her sixth in the league.
This summer could become a breakout tournament for Chinchilla, but Costa Rica will need all of their key players to step up if they are to challenge the likes of Spain and Japan in Group C.