Croatia and Nigeria will look to gain maximum points from their encounter in Group D to set the tone for the rest of the World Cup campaign.
Croatia come into the World Cup on the back of a rather mediocre qualifying campaign, wherein they had to endure going through the second phase – the knockout phase of the qualifiers. While they did make quick work of Greece in order to secure their place among the 31 other teams in Russia, they would be hoping for much improved showings at the main event.
Nigeria, on the other hand, cruised through their qualification group in the African region. The Super Eagles had actually gone unbeaten in the entire campaign, but had to accept defeat in their last group stage match for fielding an ineligible player. Still, Nigeria look in good shape coming into a tricky Group D at the World Cup.
Croatia played two friendles in the lead-up to the World Cup and had mixed results to show for their preparation. While Brazil schooled the European nation, Croatia managed a narrow win over Senegal, who are in Group H.
Nigeria though, played just one World Cup nation among the three friendlies in their warmup to the event. They posed a legitimate threat against England while not looking convincing in any of the matches thus far.
With the group already one of the stacked groups at the event, three points here will be the minimum aim for both Croatia and Nigeria. We take a closer look at the two squads.
Team News & Tactics
Zlatko Dalic has a squad dipped in riches of quality to tap into for the World Cup. Danijel Subasic is certain to start, as are Dejan Lovren and Sime Vrsaljko. The rest of the defensive spots might be up for grabs. But, Dalic is likely to go for experience, with Vedran Corluka likely to partner Lovren in the centre.
The left-back slot has been a contentious one. But, there are signs that Ivan Strinic has managed to lock down the position for himself, at least for the game against Nigeria.
The midfield is Croatia’s most stacked area and it might pose a problem or two for Dalic. One potential solution is the 4-3-3 formation, which will enable the manager to incorporate Ivan Rakitic, Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic in the lineup.
Mario Mandzukic should be the designated striker for Croatia. And while Ivan Perisic is a certain starter for the match, the other spot on the wing will depend on where Dalic decides to field the Inter Milan winger.
Perisic is likely to slot in on the left, which means the right wing will be available – a position where Marko Pjaca should start.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Subasic; Vrsaljko, Corluka, Lovren, Strinic; Kovacic, Modric, Rakitic; Pjaca, Mandzukic, Perisic
Leon Balogun is not at a 100% and could have to sit this one out. In case he does, Troost-Ekong will likely be partnered by Kenneth Omeruo. Idowu and Elderson should take up the positions on either flank.
Wilfred Ndidi is reported to have recovered in time to start the game against Croatia. The energetic midfielder will partner John Obi Mikel at the base of the 4-2-3-1. The front four is also massively stacked for Nigeria.
Kelechi Iheanacho should start upfront for Nigeria. But, the three behind the Leicester City striker should keep rotating positions between themselves, making them an even bigger threat with their interchangeability.
To start things off, Alex Iwobi should command a more central role, with Victor Moses on his preferred position on the right. Ahmed Musa will be looking to tear things up with his pace on the left.
Nigeria’s wide attack presents a very diverse proposition. While Musa uses pace to get past opponents, Moses and Iwobi are tricky customers who often use their flair and even cute passes to leave defenders lying in their wake.
One of the biggest gambles will be to hand 19-year-old Francis Uzoho a start in goal, something the reports have been hinting towards.
Probable Lineup (4-2-3-1): Uzoho; Idowu, Omeruo, Troost-Ekong, Elderson; Mikel, Ndidi; Moses, Iwobi, Musa; Iheanacho
1. This will be Croatia’s second-ever meeting with an African nation, with their previous encounter being a 2-0 win over Cameroon in 2014.
2. Croatia have lost their opening game at the World Cup on three successive occasions.
3. Nigeria have won just one of their last 12 games at the World Cup.
4. Nigeria have the youngest squad at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, with an average age of 25 years and 336 days.
5. Nigeria come into their opening tie, having not recorded a win in their last four international matches.
Player to Watch
The 19-year-old is being tipped to be the player that will be entrusted to guard the Nigerian goal against Croatia. Uzoho is very fresh at the international level and will need to be up to the task.
While many would doubt Uzoho’s ability to command the goal at such a young age and with not enough experience for an event as big as this, the Deportivo La Coruna goalkeeper comes into the event on the back of a solid season with the Reserves while managing to make his senior debut for the club as well.
Croatia 3-1 Nigeria
Nigeria are likely to miss the services of Leon Balogun in defence. And while the nation does have other options in Balogun’s position, losing a key player like Balogun for their first match could really have an impact on their defensive shape and chemistry at the back.
Croatia, on the other hand, will come into the match knowing well enough that a result is needed against Nigeria to boost their hopes of qualifying to the knockout phase. Their preparation matches might not have been ideal, but the quality they possess should be enough to fight off the threat posed by the Super Eagles.