Spain a Big World Cup Hurdle for Japan

Jiji Press
Saki Kumagai

Outlook for Group C

Spain, Costa Rica, Zambia, Japan

The favorite: Spain seeks its first trip past the final 16 of the World Cup. It has only one trip beyond the last eight of the European Championships but edged out Canada for the final top seed in the Women’s World Cup draw based on some stronger recent form.

Best matchup: With Spain and Japan both likely to advance from one of the most top-heavy groups in the tournament, the most compelling group stage action could come when second-time qualifiers Costa Rica and debutants Zambia meet on Day 3. Neither side might have a chance at advancing from the group at that point, but both could likely be looking to make history with a first World Cup win.

History lesson: While Spain is the group favorite, Japan is easily the most seasoned nation in Group C, having won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup before finishing second to the United States in 2015. The latter was a second consecutive defeat to the Americans in a final after a 2-1 loss in the gold-medal match at the 2012 Olympic Games.

Players to watch: Spain’s Alexia Putellas is one of the world’s great playmakers, but she was limited to five league appearances for Barcelona this season — all off the bench — after an extended layoff due to a knee injury. Japan center back and captain Saki Kumagai is the only member of the current national team who was a part of the 2011 World Cup-winning squad.

Up next: If the group goes as expected, Spain and Japan could be favored against whoever will be their second-round opponents from Group A. After that, though, the group winner could be rewarded by avoiding a possible quarterfinal against the two-time defending champion United States, who will be favored in Group E.

Ronaldo: Saudi league above MLS

The rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi remains intact even with the soccer stars now plying their trade in different continents.

One day after Messi, the 36-year-old Argentinian forward, was officially signed by Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami, Ronaldo took a verbal shot at his longtime foe, maintaining that his new league in Saudi Arabia is better than MLS.

Ronaldo, the veteran Portuguese forward, joined Saudi Arabian club Al Nassr earlier this year.

Ronaldo said Monday, according to Lisbon sports newspaper A Bola, “Returning to Europe, for me, is a closed possibility, I’m already 38½ years old and … it’s not worth it.

“Europe lost a lot of quality. The only one that is one of the best is the Premier League, the Spanish league lost its level, the Portuguese one is not ‘top,’ the German one also lost a lot of quality. The USA? No, the Saudi championship is much better than the USA.”

Since Ronaldo’s arrival, the Saudi league has also attracted other international stars such as France’s Karim Benzema and N’Golo Kante, Brazil’s Roberto Firmino, Senegal’s Edouard Mendy, Serbia’s Sergej Milinkovic-Savic and Croatia’s Marcelo Brozovic.

Added Ronaldo: “In one year, more and more top players will come to Saudi. In a year the Saudi league will overtake the Turkish league and Dutch league.”

Ronaldo made his remarks after Al Nassr lost 5-0 in a preseason friendly against Spanish top-division side Celta Vigo at Faro, Portugal.