As the first match to take place in the tournament’s most westerly location, the Arena Baltika will play host to Saturday’s evening game.
Both Croatia and Nigeria will bring their undiminished aspirations with them to this new stadium, hoping to make an early impact in a group which looks to be one of the tournaments most unpredictable.
Croatia have a relatively unknown manager leading them forward in Zlatko Dalić. The countries former midfielder has been in charge less than a year, winning four of the seven games (D1, L2) he’s commanded over to renew confidence in the team.
Meanwhile, Gernot Rohr has led Nigeria forward for almost two years now, picking up the morale of a team left rocked by failure to qualify for 2017’s Africa Cup of Nations finals.
However, it will be the players on the pitch who can continue building their nation’s prospects. Below, we look at three of the key battles which will play a major role in deciding the fate of this fixture and set the direction for their national teams to follow in the coming weeks.
Danijel Subasic (Croatia) vs Odion Ighalo (Nigeria)
While Croatia’s star-studded team limped through the qualifying stage, the AS Monaco keeper enjoyed a strong run of games. Subašić cemented his place as the countries number one with six clean sheets from eight fixtures, letting slip four goals in total throughout their campaign.
With Dejan Lovren and Vedran Corluka likely to get caught out for pace at times during the upcoming games, Subašić will need to be on hand to maintain his side’s impressive defensive record.
One player who has pace to burn in the Nigerian frontline is Chinese Super League-based striker, Odion Ighalo. The former Watford forward now ply’s his trade for Changchun Yatai where he’s scored seven goals from the 11 fixtures so far this season, following his 15 strikes last season.
With only four goals from his 17 senior international matches, Ighalo has only scored once for his country in the last two years (8 appearances). If he can transfer his domestic form to Russia, it could greatly enhance Nigeria’s chances.
Mario Mandzukic (Croatia) vs Leon Balogun (Nigeria)
The battle at the opposite end of the pitch will see Juventus’ star forward take on Brighton and Hove Albion’s most recent signing.
With a strong aerial presence and an imposing, physical player in the Croatian side, Mandžukić claimed ten goals for his country during the qualifying games. His overhead-kick consolation goal in the Champions League defeat to Real Madrid may live long in the memory, however, he only scored five goals from his 32 Serie A appearances last season.
Having started each of Nigeria’s three warm-up matches, 29-year-old Balogun is set to make his first appearance at the World Cup Finals after missing out four years ago with a broken foot.
The tough defender is 6 foot 3 and will provide a challenge for Mandžukić’s physical style. With a good turn of pace and a plenty of experience to rely upon, Balogun is also comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and can be one of his countries top players during this tournament.
Wilfred Ndidi (Nigeria) vs Ivan Rakitic (Croatia)
With Onazi Ogenyi allegedly being dropped from the first team following a dispute with captain Jon Obi Mikel, Leicester City’s Ndidi looks certain to claim a starting berth in the Nigeria side.
Far from being a default option though, Ndidi comes into this summer on the back of an impressive season. No goals and two red cards may paint a bad image of the midfielder, however, he has capably filled the void left in the team created when N’Golo Kanté left for Chelsea.
With a maturity far belying his 21 years, he will need to keep a cool head when he faces down Barcelona’s Rakitić. Capable of playing in an attacking midfield role, Rakitić often plays a deeper position in the national side but can make late, surging runs forward to support the strikers.
With Croatia expected to dominate possession, Rakitić will be keen to drive forward through the centre of the pitch. If Ndidi can prove as effective in recycling the ball for Nigeria as he has with the Foxes recently, the game could well open up into a quickly paced match of attack and counter.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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