Croatia and Nigeria open their World Cup campaign in Kaliningrad on Saturday 16th June. With Argentina the clear favourites to win Group D, both teams need a result here to keep realistic hopes of qualification alive.
Croatia vs Nigeria
Croatia finished second behind Iceland in Group I, qualifying via the runners-up playoff. There, they breezed past Greece to secure their World Cup spot. Despite having a wealth of attacking options, Croatia scored only 15 goals in qualifying. This was the second lowest in teams to finish in the top two. After a disappointing run of qualifying results, manager Ante Cacic was sacked, replaced by the less experienced Zlatko Dalic. Dalic was able to guide Croatia through their final group game and the playoffs.
Nigeria cruised through qualifying, topping their third round qualifying group by six points. The Super Eagles were undefeated in a potentially tricky group containing Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia. Their squad, which contains six Premier League players, is captained by former Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel.
Croatia have played 4-2-3-1 for several years. Critics argued that this didn’t get the best out of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, who played alongside each other. Dalic changed this in his first game, moving Modric to a more attacking role, playing closer to the striker. This move has allowed Rakitic to dominate the midfield, playing alongside a more defensive midfielder, usually Milan Badelj.
Croatia play with two strikers, who alternate between the right wing and traditional striker role. Andrej Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic are very different in style, which can give defenders a headache. Mandzukic, Croatia’s second all-time top goalscorer, netted five times during qualifying and has a strong physical presence. Kramaric has enjoyed an excellent season for Hoffenheim and scored in Croatia’s play-off win. The technically gifted, lethal finisher, plays high up the pitch on the right wing and has license to drift into the box
Inter’s Ivan Perisic lines up on the left wing and Croatia play to his strengths. When Croatia have possession, Perisic hugs the touchline to create space for his teammates. When he receives the ball, his teammates’ movement often leaves Perisic in a 1-on-1 situation. His pace, dribbling and intelligence allow him to usually dominate in these moments. He benefits from having two very strong feet, which leaves defenders uncertain as to whether he will move inside or out.
However, Croatia’s attacking strength can leave them vulnerable defensively, although they only conceded four goals in qualifying. Their ffull-backsare given little support by the wingers and are often left in 2-on-1 situations, particularly down their left. Left-back Ivan Strncic has looked exposed at times and Nigeria will look to isolate him on Saturday.
Nigeria boss Gernot Rohr has experimented with formations since taking over in 2016, but favours 4-2-3-1. With ball winners Wilfried Ndidi and Ogneyi Onazi sitting in front of the defence, Nigeria’s backline is difficult to penetrate.
The Super Eagles are heavily reliant on the counter attack. Chelsea’s Victor Moses is their main threat, playing as a true winger for his country. His pace and experience are heavily leaned on, with Nigeria looking to him for inspiration. Moses was their top scorer in qualifying and will likely look to target Strncic and Croatia’s left.
Nigeria’s attack is spearheaded by former Watford striker Odion Ighalo. Ighalo is a smart finisher who has scored 22 times for Changchu Yatai since joining in January 2017. He holds the ball up well, but Nigeria will need to provide him with adequate support in Russia else he could be isolated. Premier League talents Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi will be attacking options from the bench but neither enjoyed good form this season and can’t be depended on.
Nigeria’s success will be dependent on how well they can transition from defence to attack. Mikel’s box to box ability will be important and if they can offer enough going forwards they have the potential to cause an upset.
The Last Word
Croatia are heavy favourites and will dominate possession but if Nigeria get the first goal, they could be in for a frustrating night.
Prediction: Croatia 2-1 Nigeria