The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off on Friday, June 7th with a match between tournament hosts, France and Korea Republic. Group B features a tournament favorite, a European dark horse, and a old foe that has stumbled of late.
Meet Group B
Germany: For the first time in decades, Germany might not be the best women's soccer team in Europe. They are still an incredibly talented team with a great system for building domestic talent, but there have been cracks in the veneer since the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup. Germany is still the second best team in the world according to FIFA rankings, but they have not been the dominant team that they once were. They lost in the third-place game against England at the 2015 World Cup, but they bounced back and won the 2016 Rio Olympics women's tournament. Germany lost a World Cup qualifying match for the first time since 1998 when they were topped by Iceland 3-2. That loss put their chances of making the tournament in jeopardy, but some poor play from Iceland later in 2018 nullified that threat. Also in 2017, Germany failed to win the 2017 UEFA Women's Euro for the first time since 1993. This is still an extremely dominant team, but they have struggled to beat other top-10 teams for the last two years. The front line for Germany is still dominant, with Alexandra Popp, Dzsenifer Marozsan, and Svenja Huth all capable of embarrassing the best defensive players in the world. The back line is much less settled, and could be a liability for the team in the later rounds of the tournament.
Spain: The second best team in the group is probably Spain. The Spaniards have been the hot breakout team in each of the last few major tournaments, but they have not been able to get over the hump against great teams that they would need to beat if they want to progress to the semifinals. Despite not being able to beat great teams, they are definitely capable of hanging with them. Spain has registered draws against three different top-10 teams (Canada, Germany, and Japan) in 2019, and they have fallen just one goal short against two more (United States and England). The decisive game for Spain will be when they take on the People's Republic of China in the final game of group play. If they lose that game, there is a decent chance they would be bounced from the tournament even with a win over South Africa. While Spain is very good defensively, the scoring duties will primarily rest with forward Jennifer Hermoso. She is a brilliant striker who has been dominant in the Spanish professional league.
China: Twenty years ago the Chinese women's national team was beaten by the United States Women's National Team in penalty kicks at the final match of the 1999 Women's World Cup. That match feels like a strong divergence point between the two teams. While the USA has been anchored in the top-2 of the world rankings for the last two decades, China has fallen from the top-five into the mid-teens. They still produce good talents, like Wang Shanshan who scored in a 2-1 loss against France last week, but the rest of the sport has grown up around them. The game against Spain will be a defining moment for China. The team has made the quarterfinals in every World Cup they've qualified for, but they might struggle to achieve a high enough goal differential to make the second round if they lose. China's defense is good unit, and teams will struggle to score against them. The problem is that China hasn't been scoring enough against high-quality teams.
South Africa: The favorite to come last in the group is definitely South Africa. They aren't a bad team, but this isn't the kind of draw where you'd think there would be the chance of them getting a point, let alone winning a match. The defense will be led by Janine van Wyk, and Linda Motlhalo and Thembi Kgatlana have a chance to impress opposing defenses, but this team doesn't have a whole lot else. They have not won a game in 2019, but they have picked games that would truly challenge them. The 0-0 draw against Sweden in January stands out as an especially good result, but otherwise they have not been very good. Any point for them would be a good point.
Who is the favorite?
Germany is the prohibitive favorite here. It's not out of the realm of possibility that they could drop a few points, but odds are good that they will win all three group games.
Match you should watch
The game between Germany and Spain will be bigger than Spain than it will be for Germany, so that's probably the second most important game of the group. It will be arguably the best game of the group, but if I had to pick one it would be the June 17th match between Spain and China.
Once again, both teams will probably come into this match with three points each and a chance to win their way into the knockout round. Both teams are very defensive, but one of them is going to be desperate for points while the other will be holding on for dear life. That's the kind of game I enjoy watching.