How It Unfolded: Group C at the FIFA Women’s World Cup

Spain and Japan both knew that they had sealed their progression ahead of their final crunch tie in Group C of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup – but how were they assured of their qualification so early, and where did things go wrong for Costa Rica and Zambia?

Matchday One

Spain v Costa Rica (3-0)

Spain kickstarted the Group C action with a resounding win over Costa Rica, with Alexia Putellas left on the bench for their opening fixture as the Barça midfielder continued to recover from a serious ACL injury.

La Roja broke the deadlock in the 21st minute, as an own goal from Valeria del Campo sent Esther González’s cross past Daniela Solera, whose birthday celebrations would be dampened by a rather hefty defeat.

Merely two minutes later, Aitana Bonmatí added Spain’s second in sensational style. Pivoting beautifully inside the area, the midfielder – often heralded as Putellas’ replacement – unleashed a cracking strike that curled perfectly into the far corner, doubling the Spanish advantage with less than 25 minutes played.

The third came soon after, with Esther González heading home to put the game to bed before the half-hour mark – picking up the pieces of Jenni Hermoso’s strike that had been denied by the woodwork. Hermoso looked to make amends for her miss minutes later, with a foul from Fabiola Villalobos granting the striker a chance from the penalty spot, though Daniela Solera was able to dive the right way and produce a fine save.

A flurry of chances for la Roja could quite easily have seen Spain further extend their advantage, but it wasn’t to be for Jorge Vilda’s side – who were ultimately forced to settle for a three-goal margin in their opening match of the tournament.

Zambia v Japan (0-5)

Zambia were dealt a blow ahead of kickoff as it was confirmed that the Copper Queens would be forced to play without Grace Chanda, as the star was hospitalised with an unconfirmed illness.

Bruce Mwape’s side were put under early pressure, with Catherine Musonda forced into action to tip Aoba Fujino’s effort over the crossbar in the opening minutes. The Zambian goalkeeper was left helpless as the Japanese forward lined up a long-range strike though, with her blushes only being spared by the woodwork.

The Nadeshiko thought they’d fired themselves into the lead after twenty minutes, as Minami Tanaka looked to slam a free-kick delivery home – but a VAR review found that the striker was offside in the buildup, resulting in the goal being disallowed.

But Japan did head into half-time with a slender advantage, as Hinata Miyazawa turned home a cross from the right flank to ensure the Nadeshiko had something to show for their early dominance.

Minami Tanaka though she’d doubled Japan’s lead soon after the break, but the forward was once again denied by VAR after making her run just a fraction of a second too early – putting herself in an offside position. The Asian side would be further disappointed mere moments later, as they were denied a penalty for Catherine Musonda’s mistimed challenge on Aoba Fujino with the forward being in an offside position as the tackle was made.

Japan did finally find their second goal, and Minami Tanaka was the scorer as the slotted Jun Endo’s cross into the bottom-right corner. Hinata Miyazawa completed her brace soon after, dashing onto the end of another Endo cross and capitalising on Catherine Musonda’s poor clearance.

Having provided the assist for the third goal, Jun Endo worked her way onto the scoresheet with Japan’s fourth of the match – powering an effort into the far corner. The drama was far rom over though, as Catherine Musonda was shown as second yellow card in stoppage time to grant Riko Ueki a chance from twelve yards. Eunice Sakala did well to save on her international debut, but the ‘keeper was found to have encroached on the area – and she wasn’t able to replicate the feat on the second time of asking, as Japan completed a stunning five-goal win.

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Matchday Two

Japan v Costa Rica (2-0)

Japan controlled the opening stages, though it took the Nadeshiko more than twenty minutes to find their long-awaited breakthrough. María Coto slipped to allow Hikaru Naomoto space to skip past her, firing an effort past Daniela Solera.

Just two minutes later, Aoba Fujino bagged Japan’s second goal of the match – putting the Asian side comfortably on course for victory as she jinked past a defender on the right flank before beating Daniela Solera at the near post.

Hikaru Naomoto looked to bag her second of the match just before the interval, though the Japanese star was only able to spurn her effort wide of the post, affording Amelia Valverde the much-needed opportunity to deliver a half-time team talk.

With 25 minutes played, the Nadeshiko found their long-awaited breakthrough. A slip from Coto allowed Naomoto to skip past her, before firing an effort past Solera – who was ever so impressive against Spain, despite conceding thrice against la Roja.

Costa Rica improved as the game drew to a close, but ultimately it was a case of ‘too little, too late’ for the minnows, as they suffered yet another defeat in the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Spain v Zambia (5-0)

Alexia Putellas returned to the starting lineup ahead of Spain’s clash with Zambia on Matchday Two, with la Roja surging to take an early lead against the Copper Queens. Teresa Abulleira bagged the opener with a thunderous strike from outside the box, with Alexia Putellas heavily involved as she registered the pre-assist from an advanced position on the left flank.

Alexia Putellas was involved once more as she set up Jenni Hermoso for Spain’s second of the match, delivering a pinpoint cross from the left flank that was met beautifully by the striker on her 100th appearance for the national team.

Jenni Hermoso was keen to notch her fiftieth goal for la Roja before the break, but her wait was painfully lengthened after the offside flag was raised – with her calm, composed finish counting for nothing.

Spain found their third goal with just over twenty minutes still to play, with Alba Redondo remaining composed as she rounded Eunice Sakala before side-footing an effort into an open net. Jenni Hermoso’s fiftieth strike followed seconds later, with the referee causing come confusion as she announced the result of a VAR check – but the goal would ultimately stand.

Alba Redondo added the fifth goal for Spain to move them to the top of Group C on goal difference as she turned home a deep cross from the right flank. VAR was once again utilised, though the results were made clearer this time round.

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Matchday Three

Costa Rica v Zambia (1-3)

With the Copper Queens still lacking their first goal at the FIFA Women’s World Cup as they headed into their final match, Lushomo Mweemba was quick to ensure that the drought would cease as she rose highest to nod Avell Chitundu’s corner past Daniele Solera after just three minutes.

Bruce Mwape’s side looked certain to add another, though Racheal Kundananji could only find the goalkeeper’s gloves with her effort from a free-kick. Avell Chitundu also squandered a golden opportunity, placing her header wide of the post from close range following Barbra Banda’s cross from the right flank.

Barbra Banda would be on the receiving end of a foul within the penalty area, as Katherine Alvarado hauled the striker to the ground – and she made no mistake from twelve yards, sending a strike comfortably into bottom-left corner and leaving Daniela Solera helpless.

But Costa Rica looked to find a way back into the fixture immediately after play resumed for the second half, with Mélissa Herrera slamming the ball over the line following a goalmouth scramble that left Catherine Musonda utterly helpless. It looked as though they’d be able to bring themselves level from the penalty spot after Catherine Musonda’s reckless challenge on Priscila Chinchilla – though the Glasgow City star was offside as the goalkeeper committed the foul, sparing Zambia’s blushes.

It was Racheal Kundananji that netted the fourth and final goal of the match, with the Madrid CFF star making no mistake as she beat Daniela Solera with a composed strike from Barbra Banda’s cut-back pass.

Japan v Spain (4-0)

Concerns about this being a cagey affair were quickly put to bed as Mariona Caldentey sought to play Aitana Bonmatí through on goal after five minutes, though the midfielder wasn’t able to latch onto the volley as the ball trickled out wide of the woodwork.

But merely seven minutes later, it was the Nadeshiko that found the elusive opener – with Jun Endo threading a through ball between the Spanish defence for Hinata Miyazawa. The forward dashed into a one-on-one with Misa, picking out the bottom-left corner successfully to open the scoring for Japan.

Just before the half-hour mark, Riko Ueki netted Japan’s second of the match as Hinata Miyazawa surged towards goal, ultimately laying the ball off to the striker – with her effort taking a deflection off Irene Paredes as it beat the ‘goalkeeper.

But with only a few minutes remaining before half-time, Japan added a third to ensure they were in comfortable control of this fixture. Hinata Miyazawa moved herself into pole position in the race for the Golden Boot, linking up with Riko Ueki once more before picking out the top-left corner with a first-time finish.

The final blow was delivered by Minami Tanaka, as the forward darted infield from the right flank – jinking the ball past Ona Batlle and Rocío Gálvez before picking out the top corner with phenomenal precision.

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The Standings

Japan’s win over Spain ensured that the Nadeshiko finished at the head of the Group C table, setting up a round-of-sixteen tie with Norway, after the Grasshoppene limped to a second-place finish in Group A. Spain arguably benefit from an easier draw in the next round, as they’ll prepare to face Inka Grings’ Switzerland.

It’s all over for Zambia and Costa Rica though, but there have been plenty of memories made – and Zambia will take immense pride in their debut win at the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Copper Queens will surely become making regular appearances on the global stage from now on, with women’s football enjoying a surge in popularity within the African nation.