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World Cup 2018 team preview: Can Spain go first to worst to first?

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ team-by-team 2018 World Cup previews. With less than a month to go until this summer’s tournament, it’s time to get familiar with each of the 32 teams participating in Russia. Next up in Group B is Spain.

For more analysis, lineup projections and predictions, head to our World Cup preview hub, bookmark it, and dig in to all 32 team previews, eight group previews, power rankings, features and so much more.

Outlook

Odds to win Group B: 65.5%
Odds to advance: 92.3%
Odds to win World Cup: 14.3%
Elo rank: 3
Yahoo Sports power rank: 3

Our writers say: Two straight early exits from major tournaments feel like distant memories for a Spain side that evokes the title-winning teams of 2008-2012. It hasn’t lost since Euro 2016 under new manager Julen Lopetegui, and has talent back to front – enough to contend for a second World Cup, and maybe even win it. Henry Bushnell

(Odds via BetOnline, converted to percentages – and therefore slightly exaggerated)

Spain is among the favorites at the 2018 World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 15th
Best World Cup finish: Champion (2010)
2014 finish: Group stage (1-0-2)
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group G ahead of Italy
Schedule: Portugal (Friday, June 15, 2 p.m., Fox), Iran (Wednesday, June 20, 2 p.m., Fox), Morocco (Monday, June 25, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group B preview]

Squad

Manager: Julen Lopetegui
Captain: Sergio Ramos (D)
Top players: David De Gea (G), Ramos, Gerard Pique (D), Isco (M), Andres Iniesta (M), David Silva (M)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: The back five – De Gea and starting defenders – are all top-five globally at their respective positions. The midfield, while devoid of an in-his-prime superstar, is as technically and tactically advanced as any in the world. That comprehensive quality is one reason Spain hasn’t lost since Euro 2016. The other is that Lopetegui, who was appointed after Euro 2016, has his side playing like an in-sync, telepathic unit á la 2008-12. Its sophistication in possession allows it to control games, and the attacking flair is more than sufficient.

Why they’ll lose games: There is still a slight concern about the age profile of the midfield. Sergio Busquets wasn’t his masterful self for Barcelona this year, and he’s still expected to anchor it. Plus, there’s still that nagging striker problem. Alvaro Morata was so far out of form at Chelsea that he didn’t make the 23. There are plenty of other good options, but no great ones, and therefore questions about what Plan B will be if the midfield isn’t carving up hypnotized opponents at will.

How they’ll play: Lopetegui, prior to moving into senior management, helmed several of Spain’s youth sides. While at the U-levels, he molded the likes of Koke, Isco and Saul Niguez into the same system the full national team was employing. So it’s not like his appointment led to an overhaul. It’s still the classic 4-3-3, and the short passing, and the possession. The fullbacks will get forward. The midfielders and inverted wingers will interchange freely. The ball will move rapidly. This team isn’t an exact replica of the Euro and World Cup winners, but on a macro level, the style is very similar.

Projected lineup (4-3-3): David De Gea; Dani Carvajal, Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba; Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, Andres Iniesta; David Silva, Diego Costa, Isco.

With Busquets injured in March, Spain played two friendlies without a traditional holding midfielder, and looked excellent. Against inferior foes, it could go to Koke or Saul instead of Busquets, or drop Silva into the middle, with a truer winger such as Marco Asensio or Iago Aspas introduced. But the above shape appears to be set in stone.

Aspas is also one of three candidates to start up front, along with Costa and Rodrigo. The latter led the line in Spain’s final warmup friendly. The other two both started the penultimate tuneup game.

And finally, Carvajal was injured in the Champions League final. If he’s not fit for the opener, it appears Alvaro Odriozola will get the call over Cesar Azpilicueta.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: There’s an interesting peripheral dynamic related to regional tensions in Spain. The fight over Catalan independence has led outspoken players who have supported it – or at least supported the Catalans’ right to vote on it – to be booed and cast as villains by a majority of national team fans. Gerard Pique is the foremost example. There are no major factions or divisions within the squad, but it’s something to watch.

Why to root for them: Because Spain is why soccer is called “the beautiful game.”

Why to root against them: Because they’re too damn good – and because it was actually quite satisfying to seem them flame out in 2014.

If you’re going to watch one game … The Portugal clash, on the tournament’s second day, is one of the best games of the round.

More Yahoo Sports World Cup 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

Group previews

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

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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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A tactical guide to the 2018 World Cup
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