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Spain Must Beat Chile If It Hopes to Advance in the World Cup

I’ve arrived here in Rio de Janeiro for a few days. I know how lucky I am — especially since the match I’ll see later on Wednesday, between Spain and Chile at the Maracana stadium, might be the most important of the group stage. (For more on Wednesday’s other matches, see our Crib Notes.)

ESPN’s Soccer Power Index doesn’t have much in the way of a prediction for this game — it sees a Chilean win and a Spanish win as about equally likely, with a draw also a decent possibility. But of course, the match matters greatly for Spain’s chances of advancing.

Let’s follow the format we used for breaking down the United States’ chances and consider the rest of the group stage from Spain’s perspective. The nine scenarios I’ll cover detail the possible results of the two games Wednesday in Group B — before Spain kicks off with Chile, the Netherlands and Australia will have completed their match in Porto Alegre (the Netherlands is heavily favored). I’ll list what the group standings will look like at the end of the day after each result — assuming that Spain remains behind on any goal differential tiebreaker because it lost by four goals to the Netherlands earlier in the group stage. (That goal differential tiebreaker makes Spain’s path much more difficult than it otherwise would be and is a big part of why our simulations give the La Furia Roja only about a 25 percent chance of advancing.) I’ll then consider how the final two matches (between Spain and Australia, and between the Netherlands and Chile) might play out.

  • Netherlands wins, Spain wins: Netherlands 6 points, Chile 3, Spain 3, Australia 0. Obviously, this is one result Spain would be happy with. A follow-up win against Australia would probably get Spain to the knockout stage — and there are some cases in which a draw against Australia could, too. Even two wins wouldn’t leave Spain 100 percent safe, however. If Spain beats Australia but Chile beats the Netherlands, three teams would be tied atop the group with six points, and Spain would probably have the worst goal differential.
  • Netherlands draws, Spain wins: Netherlands 4 points, Chile 3, Spain 3, Australia 1. This is more promising for Spain as there’d then be some chance it could leapfrog the Netherlands. Spain would control its own destiny without having to worry about goal differential: Win against Australia by any margin and Spain would make it to the knockout stage. Spanish fans should be rooting for the Socceroos to grab at least one point today.
  • Netherlands loses, Spain wins: Netherlands 3 points, Chile 3, Australia 3, Spain 3. A heck of a mess in the short run as all teams would be tied at three points. However, Spain would still control its own destiny and a win against Australia by any margin would put Spain in the knockout stage.
  • Netherlands wins, Spain draws: Netherlands 6 points, Chile 4, Spain 1, Australia 0. Spain is very probably out. The only exception is if it beats Australia and the Netherlands beats Chile — and the margins are wide enough to swing the goal differential back in Spain’s favor.
  • Netherlands draws, Spain draws: Netherlands 4 points, Chile 4, Australia 1, Spain 1. This scenario is extremely problematic for Spain and probably means its elimination. The best Spain could hope after these results is a tie for second, which it would probably lose on goal differential. Another problem is that even if Spain were to beat Australia, the Netherlands and Chile could guarantee their entry into the knockout stage by drawing with each other. FIFA and fans hate it, but soccer teams have a way of playing for the draw when such incentives are in place.
  • Netherlands loses, Spain drawsChile 4 points, Netherlands 3, Australia 3, Spain 1. Only marginally better. In this case, Spain can finish in sole possession of second place if it then beats Australia and Chile beats the Netherlands. If Spain beats Australia but the Netherlands draws or beats Chile, Spain finishes in a tie for second and is likely out based on goal differential.
  • Netherlands wins, Spain losesNetherlands 6 points, Chile 6, Australia 0, Spain 0. Spain is mathematically eliminated.
  • Netherlands draws, Spain loses: Chile 6 points, Netherlands 4, Australia 1, Spain 0. Spain is mathematically eliminated.
  • Netherlands loses, Spain loses: Chile 6 points, Netherlands 3, Australia 3, Spain 0. Spain is eliminated for all intents and purposes. It would have to beat Australia, have Chile beat the Netherlands, and then beat both the Netherlands and Australia on goal differential — not very likely.

The short version: Lose to Chile on Wednesday and Spain is almost certainly out of the tournament. A draw and La Furia Roja is in grave trouble: Spain would need a win against Australia by an overwhelming margin and very probably some help on top of that. A win keeps Spain alive, but it remains vulnerable, especially if the Netherlands beats Australia (a 74 percent chance, according to our model).

CORRECTION (June 18, 11:56 a.m.): A previous version of this post incorrectly listed Australia as having three points if the Netherlands beats Australia and Spain loses to Chile. In that scenario, Australia would have zero points.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.