2015 Women’s World Cup: Group E preview

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Group E could quietly become the most entertaining quartet in the Women’s World Cup. Brazil, Spain, Korea Republic and Costa Rica are all technical teams with playmakers who serve as their respective engines.

Marta is the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year and possibly the most brilliant individual player the game has ever seen. Veronica Boquete is the Spanish playmaker who is easily among the best in the world today. Shirley Cruz is the maestro in the middle of the park for Costa Rica and Ji Soyun plays provider and goal-scorer for Korea Republic.

That all four of these teams ended up in the same group is serendipitous; they are perfect match-ups for each other as Brazil is the only one of the four teams that can really handle physicality if faced with it.

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Group E Schedule

June 9: Spain vs Costa Rica (Montreal, 4 pm ET)
June 9: Brazil vs Korea Republic (Montreal, 7 pm ET)
June 13: Brazil vs Spain (Montreal, 4 pm ET)
June 13: Korea Republic vs Costa Rica (Montreal, 7 pm ET)
June 17: Costa Rica vs Brazil (Moncton, 7 pm ET)
June 17: Korea Republic vs Spain (Ottawa, 7 pm ET)

Brazil

Coach: Vadao
World Ranking: No. 7
Previous World Cups: 1991 (group stage), 1995 (group stage), 1999 (3rd place), 2003 (quarterfinals), 2007 (runners-up), 2011 (quarterfinals)

Ah, Brazil. The queens of underachievement are heavy favorites in this group as the seeded team and expected to advance first out of the group. If they do that, they would get the second-place finisher out of Group D, which could one one of their old foes — the United States or Sweden. The difficult Round of 16 match that looms could see Brazil make its earliest exit ever given the expanded tournament format, a scary prospect for a federation that finally just invested in its women’s program with an 18-month residency that will last through the 2016 Olympics in Rio. There’s been an injection of youth alongside the usual names of Marta, Cristiane, Rosana and Formiga (who, along with Japan’s Homare Sawa, will play in her record sixth World Cup). As always, Brazil is a wild card, capable of making a deep run but equally expected to implode.

[PURCHASE: 2015 Women’s World Cup Preview Guide]

Spain

Coach: Ignacio Quereda
World Ranking: No. 14
Previous World Cups: None

As Boquete – known simply as “Vero” – puts it, Spain players are playing for more than just themselves at this World Cup; they are playing to earn respect back home in a machismo country. Boquete will be the pulse of La Roja, but she’ll need support from others like Jenny Hermoso, Alexia Putellas and Vicky Losada. Natalia was the team’s leading scorer during qualifying with 12 goals in 10 games. Spain qualified by finishing unbeaten. Spain is expected to come out of this group in second place, but Korea Republic and Costa Rica will serve as stiff challenges.

Korea Republic

Coach: Yoon Deok-Yeo
World Ranking: No. 18
Previous World Cups: 2003 (group stage)

Ji Soyun might be the least known to the North American crowd of the four spotlighted players in this group, but the 24-year-old is coming into her prime right as she enters the world’s biggest stage. She is the reigning player of the year in England’s FA WSL after tearing up the league with Chelsea. On Saturday, she made her soft introduction to the American crowd with an impressive performance against the United States in a scoreless friendly draw. Korea Republic will be one of the youngest teams at the Women’s World Cup, but after recent successes at youth World Cups, that isn’t a bad thing.

Costa Rica

Coach: Amelia Valverde
World Ranking: No. 37
Previous World Cups: None

Las Ticas were the success story of CONCACAF qualifying in October, carrying over the impressive run that their men’s team made a last summer’s World Cup into the women’s game. Shirley Cruz was impressive as expected, but so too were newer names like 23-year-old forward Carolina Venegas (who scored a memorable bicycle kick) and 25-year-old forward Wendy Acosta. Cruz is a pioneer for Costa Rica as the first and still only player to ply her trade in Europe. She won two UEFA Champions League titles with Lyon before switching to rival PSG. Now, Cruz, as the world’s biggest stage to show off her talents. How Costa Rica lines up will be interesting to see, as Garabet Avedissian made the oddly-timed decision to leave his post after guiding Costa Rica into the World Cup all while playing inspiring soccer.

La Liga roundup: Nacho header powers Real Madrid to top of table (video)

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Real Madrid’s close win at the Estadio Jose Zorilla to go atop of Spain’s top-flight highlights La Liga’s Sunday action.

[ FOLLOW: PST’s La Liga coverage ]

Real Valladolid 0-1 Real Madrid

Real Madrid is three points clear at the top of La Liga after Nacho Fernandez’s header in the 78th minute against Real Valladolid on Sunday.

With defending champions Barcelona dropping three, crucial points against Valencia on Saturday, Zinedine Zidane and company take a giant leap in the tight title race. Los Blancos’ 46 points are the most within La Liga with less than a half a season to go.

But even then, the French manager was reluctant to accept that his team did enough against Valladolid to claim league triumph.

“For us, nothing changes,” Zidane said. “We are happy with the victory, the work done having fought until the end, but nothing changes. There are 17 games left and we will continue fighting until the end.

“I don’t want to talk about being champions because there is still a lot left to play. It changes nothing to be leaders, they are three important points but nothing more.

“There are a lot of league games left and it will be difficult for all teams, including us.”

Madrid’s defense shined all 90 minutes, denying the hosts from registering a shot on target and producing the match-winning goal via Nacho.

“Defensively, what we are doing, we are doing well. It is our strength,” Zidane also told reporters. “We defend all and when we lose the ball we recover it very high, and if we keep it we have a good chance of scoring.”

“Nacho scored and that is part of football. We know that we can improve in this aspect,” he added. “Nacho is a professional. When he has to compete he does well. I’m glad for his goal; he doesn’t usually score them but from time-to-time we can also create chances for defenders.”

Debuting for Madrid in 2011, Nacho has made 133 appearances and scored seven goals. His goal on Sunday perhaps the most important, earning his team what is arguably their most crucial league win this season.

Elsewhere in La Liga

Atletico Madrid 0-0 Leganes

Celta Vigo 0-0 Eibar

Getafe 1-0 Real Betis

Real Sociedad 3-0 Mallorca

Report: New York Red Bulls reject West Ham bid for Aaron Long

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The New York Red Bulls have rejected an offer from West Ham for defender Aaron Long, according to Sky Sports.

The Hammers’ offer for the 27-year-old former MLS Defender of the Year was $500,000 for a season-long loan with a $4.5 million option to buy in the summer.

Last summer, Long, who has a $4 million release clause was on the verge of joining the London-based side, but was unable to secure a work permit.

“As our biggest ally, it seems strange that a football player from the US can’t automatically get a work visa to play in England,” the defender said last summer, amid a move to England. “Every kid in the USA dreams of playing in the English Premier League. Not many players get the chance, so of course I would like to play there someday.”

West Ham, who haven’t won in three Premier League matches, stand 17th on the table with 23 points.

Neymar pays tribute to Kobe Bryant (video)

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Neymar dedicated his second goal to Kobe Bryant, who, along with eight others, tragically passed away on Sunday.

The Brazilian star approached a sideline camera after his second goal of the night, gesturing the numbers two and four with his fingers, a number worn by Bryant during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Following the game, Neymar paid additional respect to Bryant via Twitter.

It reads in English: “Sad day for us in sports, for us fans and especially for Kobe’s family and friends. A legend has been made with your hands, thank you for extolling the Kobe sport … may God comfort the hearts of your family and friends”

Bryant, 41, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and six others, died in the helicopter accident on Sunday morning in Southern California.

A basketball legend and soccer fan, others within the sport paid tribute to Bryant:

Klopp admits Liverpool youngsters will feature in Shrewsbury replay

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In proper FA Cup fashion, League One side Shrewsbury Town pulled off a late draw against Liverpool, forcing a replay at Anfield.

[ RECAP: Shrewsbury forces FA Cup replay with Liverpool ]

The replay, which is set to take place during the Premier League’s winter break, is going to be a problem for Liverpool, according to manager Jurgen Klopp. First-team players have been granted the time off, forcing Klopp and company to play the “kids” for the upcoming replay of the fourth-round bout.

“We intend to honor the original idea of the break,” the Liverpool manager said on Sunday. “We have respect for the players’ welfare and they need this time off.”

“We got a letter from the authorities in April last year asking us not to organize anything during the week of the break and we haven’t,” he added. “We have given the players the time off, and some are going away. They will still be keeping fit, but they do not have to play football that week and they do not have to come in to Melwood.”

Jason Cummings’ right-footed strike in the 75th minute nulled Liverpool’s two-goal advantage early in the second half. The German also admitted that there was no reason for a replay on Tuesday 4 February or Wednesday 5 February.

“We lost the ball in the wrong moments and we never got used to the pitch,” he said. “We conceded the penalty after losing the ball and when they scored their second goal it was after we had lost two challenges in a row. We didn’t play well enough to take anything from the game, we got what we deserved. I would like to give Shrewsbury credit for their performance and the atmosphere their supporters produced. I enjoyed the atmosphere around the cup tie, I just didn’t enjoy the way we played.”