Argentina’s shock draw with Iceland provided Croatia and Nigiera with an extra incentive to make a postive early impression on the 2018 World Cup. Both failed dismally in that regard in Kaliningrad on Saturday night.
Lionel Messi’s missed spot-kick in Moscow earlier in the day ensured that the South Americans would not have a simple passage to the knockout round, as it left Croatia and Nigeria with an excellent opportunity to take control of Group D.
And, after a 2-0 win, Croatia sit at the top of the table but only after an underwhelming performance against a poor Super Eagles side. Two set-pieces proved the difference: one a sloppy own goal from a corner and the second a converted penalty following clumsy defending from Nigeria defender William Ekong.
A lot had been made of Croatia’s better technical ability in the build-up to the game, with Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr highlighting his side’s underdog status while referencing the quality of their opponents.
“They have very big players, five or six play in Serie A, three in Spain and the others in big clubs,” he said. “We have players who do not play in these championships and not in their teams. They are young but we hope with enthusiasm they can improve in this tournament.”
The Spanish-based duo of Modric and Rakitic proved instrumental in the game, with Nigeria’s lesser-heralded names unable to match what the La Liga pair had to offer. Croatia looked to build all their attacks through these two players, with either dropping deep to collect the ball before distributing it into a more attacking position.
Modric was instrumental in the opening goal, delivering a brilliant ball in from the corner, with Ante Rebic nodding on for Mario Mandzukic, whose diving header was turned into the net by the hapless Oghenekaro Etebo. The lesser-ranked side trailed at the break, but the difference in technical ability was less evident on the pitch.
For all Croatia’s alleged advantage in quality, they had no shots on target in the opening 45 minutes. Nor did Nigeria, who showed plenty of flair to entertain their fans, particularly through Chelsea winger Victor Moses and veteran John Obi Mikel, but no end product.
With the youngest squad at the tournament, the Super Eagles’ side was filled with relative newcomers to the international stage. Stoke’s Etebo battled hard in the centre of the field, but was often second-best to his more experienced opponents. Fellow 22-year-old Alex Iwobi was ineffective on the left, failing to get the better of Atletico Madrid’s Sime Vrsaljko before being withdrawn just after the hour mark.
Croatia’s first shot on target was actually the converted penalty, with Modric doing what Messi failed to do and put his shot beyond the goalkeeper. Francis Uzoho could do little about either goal, with the 19-year-old helpless to prevent his side losing their opening game.
Uzoho looked bright when he was tested later on after some more good work from Modric, pushing Ivan Perisic’s cross to safety after the Real Madrid midfielder had played the winger in with a defence-splitting pass.
“We look back at history and whenever Croatia won the first game, we emerged from the group. In Brazil we did not win, this is key,” Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic said in the pre-match press conference.
Now that they have kicked off their campaign with a victory, they stand a great chance of continuing that World Cup tradition, but will not have given Argentina anything to worry about in the battle to progress into the last 16 as group winners.
Nigeria’s omens are less positive. Any time they have lost their opening game, they have failed to progress. Luckily for them, they sit only a point behind Argentina and Iceland, meaning a win in their next game against Iceland would put them back in contention. However, they did do anywhere enough in Kaliningrad to worry either side.
Still, while Nigeria are looking at World Cup 2018 as a platform to build for 2022, Croatia do not have such luxuries. Modric is now 32 and Rakitic 30, so this is the last chance for the “golden generation” to leave their mark on the international stage.
But to go far in Russia, they will have to start creating chances, something they did very little of in their World Cup opener – their first shot on target from open play did not arrive until the 92nd minute.
Now, Messi and Argentina await, in Nizhny Novgorod on Wednesday, eager to make and take chances of their own. After seeing what Croatia served up on Saturday, the struggling Albiceleste will be slightly more confident of doing just that.