Nigeria's John Obi Mikel (right) and England's Fabian Delph battle for the ball
Friday Jun 15, 2018. 17:30
Nigeria’s Super Eagles will look to open their Group D campaign at the 2018 World Cup with a win when they face Croatia at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Saturday, June 16, kick-off at 21h00 CAT.
Nigeria were arguably Africa’s most impressive team through the qualification tournament for Russia 2018, but their warm-up results have been less than inspiring: they drew 1-1 at home to DR Congo in late May before suffering defeats to England (1-2) and the Czech Republic (0-1) in their last two matches.
Despite their stuttering form in the lead-up to the tournament, coach Gernot Rohr has expressed confidence in his side’s ability to compete in what will be a very testing pool.
And one can understand the German tactician’s confidence: the Super Eagles boast a powerful line-up featuring Premier League stars such as Victor Moses and Wilfred Ndidi, the experienced John Obi Mikel, who directs traffic through the middle of the park, and an efficient and effective striker in Odion Ighalo – while still having the likes of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho to back him up.
Yet the Nigerians’ Achilles heel is their defence: they do not have a settled goalkeeper and their centre-back combination of William Trooset-Ekong and Leon Balogun looks good on paper but has yet to really gel out on the pitch.
Croatia already have a taste for beating West African powerhouses, having overcome Senegal in their final warm-up game last Friday, and they have also tested themselves against Mexico (1-0 win) and Brazil (0-2 loss).
Zlatko Dalic’s side have perhaps been underestimated in the lead-up to Russia 2018. They boast two of the world’s finest central midfielders in Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric – two true ‘pass masters’ - and in forward Mario Mandzukic they have a tireless runner whose selfless play will open up spaces for others to capitalise on.
Yet they too can be exploited at the back, where their experienced defence is either slow and ageing (Verdan Corluka and Ivan Strinic are both 30-plus) or is a calamity waiting to happen, best exemplified by Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren.
There is no previous history between the teams, as this will be their first meeting in international football. Nigeria are the higher ranked team and have more World Cup pedigree, but it is their energy and physicality which should give them the edge over Croatia’s technical proficiency.
Croatia v Nigeria – head-to-head
N/A – This will be their first meeting.