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World Cup 2018 team preview: Iceland is more than just a great story

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 D is Iceland.

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 D: 9.1%
Odds to advance: 26.7%
Odds to win World Cup: 0.5%
Elo rank: 22
Yahoo Sports power rank: T-16

Our writers say: Famously, Iceland is the smallest nation to reach the World Cup. It’s a big volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with fewer than 350,000 citizens – about a fifth of Manhattan. But it punches incomprehensibly far above its weight. It came within a game of making it to Brazil in 2014. Then, it qualified for Euro 2016 and stunned England to reach the quarterfinals. But this team, coached by a former part-time dentist, remains a Cinderella story and a long shot to accomplish much. Leander Schaerlaeckens

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

Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. (Getty)

Basics

World Cup appearance: 1st
Best World Cup finish: None
2014 finish: Did not qualify
Qualifying: Topped UEFA Group I ahead of Croatia, Ukraine, Turkey
Schedule: Argentina (Saturday, June 16, 10 a.m., Fox), Nigeria (Friday, June 22, 11 a.m., Fox), Croatia (Tuesday, June 26, 2 p.m., Fox/FS1)

[Group D preview]

Squad

Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson
Captain: Aron Gunnarsson (M)
Top players: Gylfi Sigurdsson (M), Alfred Finnbogason (F), Johann Berg Gudmundsson (M), Ragnar Sigurdsson (D)
Full 23-man squad

Breakdown

Why they’ll win games: You’ll hear cliché adjectives like “well-organized” and “spirited” to describe Iceland, just as they’re used to describe any good defensive team. And they’re certainly apt. But there’s more talent here than you’d think. And the approach – defend with 10 men behind the ball, break cautiously and opportunistically, capitalize on set pieces – works. Sigurdsson’s dead-ball delivery is a perfect match for a starting 11 that’ll feature eight players above 6 feet tall. So is Gunnarsson’s long throw.

Why they’ll lose games: They’ll struggle to keep the ball. They’ll get pinned back. And when you get pinned back, no matter how good you are, you always run the risk of defensive breakdowns, individual mistakes or flukes. As we saw in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals, Iceland’s low block certainly isn’t impermeable.

How they’ll play: Iceland isn’t always uber-defensive, but against the caliber of team it’ll see in Group D, it will be. The formation is a 4-2-3-1 that’s more like a 4-5-1. It’s rigid. There isn’t always a wholehearted attempt to counter when possession changes hands. But there is a great deal of intelligence and recognition of when opportunities to get forward arise. And every corner, free kick or throw-in in the attacking half is a threat.

Projected lineup (4-2-3-1): Hannes Thor Halldorsson; Birkir Mar Saevarsson, Ragnar Sigurdsson, Kari Arnason, Hordur Bjorgvin Magnusson; Aron Gunnarsson, Emil Hallfredsson; Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Birkir Bjarnason; Alfred Finnbogason.

There are really only two possible non-injury-related changes: Sverrir Ingi Ingason could start ahead of Arnason at center back, and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson could be the lone striker. Or, if Iceland goes to a 4-4-2, Sigurdsson can play off the left or deeper, and some combination of Bodvarsson, Finnbogason and Bjorn Sigurdarson can play up front together.

Gunnarson, though, has been battling a knee injury. If he’s not fit, it’s unclear if the adjustment would be a deeper role for Sigurdsson or something else.

Rooting Guide

What makes them unique: Uh … just about everything! As mentioned above, Iceland is the smallest nation to ever qualify for a World Cup. Its manager, as recently as two years ago, was a part-time coach and practicing dentist. The full story is simply remarkable. Oh, and they’ve got that clap:

Why to root for them: How could you not root for them?!?

Why to root against them: If you’re a Scrooge and hate fun.

If you’re going to watch one game … The opener against Argentina, in Moscow, is going to be a spectacle. Don’t miss it.

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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