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World Cup 2018 Group D preview: Prepare for chaos

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ coverage of the 2018 World Cup. With the tournament approaching, and with 32 team previews available for consumption, it’s time to broaden our gaze and dissect the eight groups.

Call them group previews if you like. But they are more so discussions. There will be stage setting and narrative building. There will be questions to answer and pose. There will be analysis and opinions, plus predictions and more. Next up is Group D.

Group D team previews: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria

Group D tiers

Every World Cup group has its own structure; its own unique feel. But a simple numerical alignment, separating the four teams into anywhere between one and four tiers, goes a long way toward framing the discussion.

Group D, however, is extremely fluid. Most would likely peg it as a 1-1-2, with Argentina in a class of its own and Croatia hot on its tail. Some, though, would put Croatia on par with Argentina in a 2-2. Others would place Croatia in a three-team trailing pack.

By the end of this preview, two things will become clear. One is that Group D, by my estimation, is a 1-1-1-1, with the Croats a significant step below the Argentines, and with Nigeria’s upside carving out a tier above Iceland. The second, however, is that I’m uneasy about that projection; and that it easily could blow up in my face. So here goes nothing …

Don’t be fooled by Argentina alarmists

Smart Soccer People seem to have decided that the Smart Soccer Take is to treat Argentina with unwavering skepticism. And the Take isn’t unfounded. The Argentines sputtered through qualification. They’re riddled with more uncertainty than Italy or the freakin’ U.S. They’ve never really come close to concocting a coherent system around Lionel Messi.

On the other hand, they’ve been to three consecutive major tournament finals. They have the GOAT. And when the GOAT was in the lineup throughout qualifying, Argentina was more than fine. It was on a 38-point pace, which would’ve put it in second, closer to first-place Brazil than third.

That’s not to say there aren’t reasons for skepticism. But the alarmists get preoccupied by the fact that – gasp – Argentina isn’t perfect and lose sight of the many reasons La Albiceleste is a legitimate World Cup contender. Plus …

Argentina alarmists can’t agree on reasons for skepticism

Smart Soccer People have decided Argentina isn’t that good, but can’t seem to agree on why that is. One given reason is that the defense is hopeless. And again, there’s some substance here. That defense leaked four goals to Nigeria in a November friendly and six to Spain in March. There are, as ever, glaring holes at fullback. Lump in the goalkeeping situation, with Sergio Romero injured, and on paper, this is the weakest sector of the Argentinean lineup.

On the other hand, Argentina conceded just 16 times in 18 qualifiers against tough South American competition, so … why, exactly, is the defense a reason to poo-poo its title hopes? Nicolas Otamendi is always ridiculed for the occasional high-profile mistake, but he’s very good. And Jorge Sampaoli’s men defend well from the front.

OK, say the Smart Soccer People, but the real problem is the attack, which is still a bit dysfunctional around Messi. Fair. At least on the surface. The qualifying stats – 19 goals in 18 games – back up that take. But again, the real problem wasn’t building around Messi; it was building without Messi. Little Leo didn’t play in eight of those 18 games. Without him, Argentina was on a 13- or 14-goal 18-game pace. With him in the team, it was on a 23- or 24-goal pace. And based on an incomplete eye test, that number would’ve been higher if several world-class strikers had finished at the rate you’d expect.

Lionel Messi and Argentina will see Nigeria in the group stage for the second consecutive World Cup. (Getty)

That number, to be fair, still isn’t great. It’s nowhere near as high as it should be, given the talent in Argentina’s squad. But Sampaoli has had eight months now to draw up something more functional. And in the end, he has individuals who can win games without the system being functional. All of which is to say the Argentina doubt has gotten a bit too harsh.

Croatia is both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Croatia has been pegged as a dark horse going into every major tournament since 2012, and with good reason – especially this time around. The current squad might be Croatia’s deepest ever. Whereas it used to have a strong starting 11 and not much else, there are now regulars at top European clubs who’ll be left out. And there is upside, which, in the end, is what you want from a dark horse, right?

But there’s a dark side. And it’s really, really dark. It’s draw-Finland-at-home dark, and struggled-against-Kosovo dark, and lose-3-0-to-Estonia dark, and draw-China-and-Azerbaijan dark. For whatever reason – maybe the on-field pieces don’t fit? Maybe off-field turmoil is distracting? – Croatia sometimes just isn’t very good.

But then games like the 2-1 victory over Spain at Euro 2016 suck you back in. Croatia is the second-best team in this group. But as you’ll see, only one of our five writers has the second-best team finishing second. Such is Croatia’s mercuriality.

Savor Luka Modric

Luka Modric will be 37 by the time the 2022 World Cup kicks off. So whether it’s now or during the tournament, make sure you take a moment to appreciate him. He’s been one of the top five midfielders in the world over the past five years. He’s a genius. And this might be our last chance to see Peak Luka Modric on the world’s stage.

Iceland hype

Iceland was a beautiful, inescapable story at Euro 2016. Now it’s become a full-fledged phenomenon. It has graced a Sports Illustrated cover. It leads every “who should neutrals root for” list. It has landed loads of sponsorships to coincide with its first World Cup appearance. And it deserves every single one of them. Because the story is one of dedication and determination and commitment and belief and togetherness. But …

Iceland rode the ‘underrated’ tag. Now it’s overrated

Can we chill a bit with the soccer side of the hype?  Yes, Iceland is “more than the sum of its parts” and all that. It has overachieved, and there’s no reason is can’t continue to do so. But this is still a group of players from second-rate leagues and actual second-tier leagues. Togetherness can only take it so far. It is, at best, the third-worst of the European sides that qualified for Russia. It has proven it isn’t woefully overmatched. It has proven it can give more talented opponents trouble. But the love has gone too far. Iceland is not getting out of this group.

Matchups

So much of the uncertainty here is about matchups. Stylistic clashes are the reasons to expect chaos. And much of that expectation can be traced back to Nigeria.

The Super Eagles, with their dynamic counterattack, are just the type of team that could undo Croatia or even Argentina. As mentioned above, they already ripped apart Argentina in a recent friendly. Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses will have opportunities to get out on the break against the two group favorites. But they might not have those opportunities against Iceland, who’ll sit in its defensive shape. Nigeria, therefore, could turn Group D upside down.

Elsewhere, Croatia would seemingly match up decently with Argentina, given its midfield prowess and the Argentine’s lack of just that. It also should have enough to beat Iceland, even if it lost 1-0 in Reykjavik. But it’s vulnerable against Nigeria. And Iceland is a wild card, perhaps just as likely to nick a 0-0 draw with Argentina as one with Nigeria.  There’s almost zero chance that Group D follows a standard 9-6-3-0 pattern. So buckle up; it’s going to be a heck of a lot of fun.

Group D TV schedule

All kickoff times ET

Saturday, June 16
Argentina vs. Iceland, 9 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)
Croatia vs. Nigeria, 3 p.m. (Fox Sports 1, Telemundo)

Thursday, June 21
Argentina vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Friday, June 22
Nigeria vs. Iceland, 11 a.m. (Fox, Telemundo)

Tuesday, June 26
Nigeria vs. Argentina, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)
Iceland vs. Croatia, 2 p.m. (Fox/FS1, Telemundo/Universo)

Group D predictions

Ryan Bailey: Croatia (1), Argentina (2)
Henry Bushnell: Argentina (1), Croatia (2)
Joey Gulino: Croatia (1), Argentina (2)
Doug McIntyre: Argentina (1), Iceland (2)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Croatia (1), Argentina (2)

More 2018 World Cup group previews

Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Group G | Group H

Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team previews

Group A: Russia | Saudi Arabia | Egypt | Uruguay
Group B: Portugal | Spain | Morocco | Iran
Group C: France | Australia | Peru | Denmark
Group D: Argentina | Iceland | Croatia | Nigeria
Group E: Brazil | Switzerland | Costa Rica | Serbia
Group F: Germany | Mexico | Sweden | South Korea
Group G: Belgium | Panama | Tunisia | England
Group H: Poland | Senegal | Colombia | Japan

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Henry Bushnell covers global soccer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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