2015 Women’s World Cup, Group E preview: Brazil and Spain’s battle of superstars

Throughout these group previews, we will be usingFiveThirtyEight.com’s Women’s World Cup projections as a reference point. We explain why here. And textually, we’ll also be highlighting the key teams (bold) and players (bold-italic); at least, the ones that are actually playing in this group.

We’ll try not to be too boring, but let’s face it: at a certain level of depth, a topic becomes boring to anyone beyond genre’s hardcores. Consider that our cop-out, but also know for people who want something slightly less wonkish, we’ve got you covered (twice over).

Group E

538 Projection:

  1. Brazil (70.0% chance of finishing first; 98.0% chance of making the knockout round)
  2. Spain (36.8%, 77.3%)
  3. South Korea (13.8 %, 75.3%)
  4. Costa Rica (1.2%, 19.8%)

The top of Group E gives us two teams that highlight where historical data might be deceiving, while giving a third example of how it’s helpful one rung below. For Brazil, the group favorite, the past shows a strong team that’s been able to scare top sides at a number of tournaments. But the inconsistent support from the federation for the senior team has left the Canarinhas reliant on Marta, the once-in-a-lifetime, world’s-most-dangerous-attacker, albeit one that’s now 29 years old.

Then there’s Spain, who, much like the Netherlands in Group A, gets undervalued. The teams steep improvement means long-term results don’t match its more recent, more impressive performances. Any consideration of what the team was five or six years ago is irrelevant.

One thing 538’s system seems to do very well is cut through the superficial value some Asian teams have because of the frequency of their competitions. Thus South Korea, ranked 18th in the world, has a far worse change to winning this group, while the odds of it getting out of the group are swayed by the distance between it and Costa Rica.

As for Costa Rica, on one level, this is an expanded field entry – a team that would not be here in a 16-team field, like at Germany 2011. On the other hand, the Ticas do have one special talent, with the goal Shirley Cruz scored against Wolfsburg in UEFA Champions League proof she’s capable of doing damage against even the best competition.

But given Costa Rica’s also the type of team that has room for a 15-year-old (midfielder Gloriana Villalobos), it’s aptly cast as the fourth of four.

The bigger questions in this group center around Spain, a team with the potential to upset Brazil, but also a floor that can descend below South Korea. With Verónica Boquete, one of the world’s elite playmakers, orchestrating the attack, the World Cup debutants have a maestro that can pick apart an often disorganized Brazilian defense. If it comes down a shootout against Marta and her Vandellas, Spain actually has the ammunition to win (albeit with little defense to help them). Talents like Natalia Pablos, Sonia Bermúdez and Jennifer Hermoso are capable of converting Boquete’s good work.

On the other hand, a suspect group of Spanish defenders could present openings for an otherwise pedestrian Korean attack, one that’s scored only six goals in the team’s last seven games. Chelsea forward Ji So-yun and as well as Rossiyanka’s Park Eun-sun are capable of converting errors into goals, but against a sound defense, those forwards can be kept quiet. As talented as Spain is going forward, less dangerous competition can stay in games because of its deficiencies at the back.

What we’re left with is three flawed contenders. Brazil, the seeded team in the group, has recognizable players such as Cristiane (74 career goals), Rosana (111 cpas), and Formiga, who is about to appear in her sixth World Cup. But as Marta goes, so goes Brazil, and while it might be able to get three points from Costa Rica without a strong performance from its star, the same cannot be said for Spain and Korea. Meanwhile, Spain’s problems in defense and Korea’s lack of punch mean they may not be able to take advantage of Brazil’s Marta dependence.

Perhaps more than any group, this one could come down to form, health, matchups, and perhaps order of games. Particularly with short turnarounds on turf surfaces, Marta is not going to be able to dominate game-in, game-out. And unless she does, there’ll be room for a surprise at the top of the group.

Games (aka, fanfic)

June 9: Spain vs. Costa Rica (Montreal) – This is an ideal first game for Spain, who will face a fellow debutant, albeit one that’s rarely exposed to the style and technique the Spaniards display. For a young team with few players who play outside Costa Rica, it could be a mild shock. This won’t be CONCACAF soccer. Spain 3, Costa Rica 0

June 9: Brazil vs. South Korea (Montreal) – If the Koreans got Brazil in game two, they’d face a slightly fatigued Marta on three days rest, one that may not have the extra kick needed to beat the South Korean defense. Fresh to open the tournament, though? Bet on Marta; or, at least, bet on Brazil to be primed to break down the Koreans. Brazil 2, South Korea 1

June 13: Brazil vs. Spain (Montreal) – For Spain, this is the perfect order of games. First the cupcake, then the favorite, one with a few weathered legs playing on turf on short rest. Spain plays a style that could leave Brazil’s more experienced players ball-chasing for much of the evening. Brazil 2, Spain 3

June 13: South Korea vs. Costa Rica (Montreal) – South Korea’s lack of punch is worrisome in a game like this, but there’s also every chance it will control most of the play, meaning what it lacks in quality chances it make up for in quantity. This is Costa Rica’s best chance to get points. South Korea 1, Costa Rica 0

June 17: Costa Rica vs. Brazil (Moncton) – After its wakeup call against Spain, expect Brazil to come back strong, taking its frustrations out with an urgent performance against Costa Rica … all the while hoping South Korea can pull off an upset in its group finale. Costa Rica 1, Brazil 3

June 17: South Korea vs. Spain (Ottawa) – South Korea will come into the game having a chance at first, second or third, but against a team that could easily knock them within tiebreaker’s luck of elimination, a draw will do nicely. And for Spain, one point will guarantee a group stage win in its first World Cup. South Korea 1, Spain 1

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