20:00 BST, Saturday 16th June, Kaliningrad Stadium (Kaliningrad, Russia) ITV
Often referred to as the Brazil of Europe, Croatia will have strong hopes of progressing from Group D. Since they reached the semi-finals during their first tournament in 1998, however, they have never been able to break out of the group stages.
Zlatko Dalić is now the man tasked with taking them to the knockout rounds, beginning with only their second competitive meeting with an African team.
Facing them will be the most populous country in Africa. Much of Nigeria’s World Cup build-up has centred around their new kit, however, they will be hoping to add substance to their style on Monday.
As the lowest ranked (48) team in the group and a side who have struggled since losing the final of the African Cup of Nations, Nigeria appear to have a rough road ahead of them.
The Super Eagles and Gernot Rohr have both proved their critics wrong before, though, and if they can learn from their recent mistakes, will pose a serious threat to the opponents in Group D.
Last Time Out
Croatia 2-1 Senegal [International Friendly]
Victory over the Lions of Teranga gave the Croatians a vital confidence boost just before they flew out to Russia. What was more impressive was the way in which they battled back from being a goal down to claim the win.
Dalić made only two changes from the team he sent out against Brazil a week earlier and was rewarded with a promising showing of fluidity in the performance.
Despite controlling possession in the first half, they were unable to carve out too many opportunities, whilst Senegal looked threatening on the break.
After falling behind to an Ismaïla Sarr goal three minutes into the second half, Croatia regained their composure and once more exerted control.
Following a shot from Andrej Kramarić which hit the crossbar, goals from Ivan Perisic by way of a deflected free-kick then Kramarić himself sealed the win in front of their expectant home crowd.
Nigeria 0-1 Czech Republic [International Friendly]
Another disjointed display from the Super Eagles provided more answers than they wanted from their final warn-up match.
Although they achieved 62% of possession over the course of the game, Nigeria failed to control the flow. Much of this was put on the shoulders of their captain, John Obi Mikel, however, he looked unsure positionally as to where he was most needed.
The full-backs, Shehu Abdullahi and Brian Idowu also failed to provide any support to their more offensive teammates.
As a result, the Czech Republic won plenty of free-kicks and corners, their 25th minute winning goal arriving through the latter.
While Nigeria looked more purposeful after the break, they were unable to convert any of the chances which fell their way. Mikel went closest with a header, though defeat to a Czech side who failed to qualify for this summer’s finals left them without a win in their last four fixtures.
Having played a strong team throughout the recent friendlies, Croatia look to have a settled starting XI going into their opening match.
Although Ante Rebić has featured in the starting lineups of their recent friendly matches, the more experienced Andrej Kramarić could replace him on the right wing for this game.
Mario Mandžukić could retain his place in the team at Nikola Kalinić’s expense, despite the 32-year-old Juventus striker having endured mixed fortunes last season.
The 19-Year-old goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, looks certain to start for the Super Eagles with Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong offering some experience just in front of him.
There could also be a start for St Petersburg-born Brian Idowu at left-back after he was selected to begin the two recent friendlies.
Further forward, the lone forward role looks to be a straight choice between Ahmed Musa or Odion Ighalo for Gernot Rohr, with Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho missing out.
Key Battle: Luka Modrić (Croatia) vs John Obi Mikel (Nigeria)
The Real Madrid midfielder will be at the heart of most of Croatia’s play and is sure to be the player in this game who dictates its tempo.
Provided more freedom to play further forward for his country, Modrić will be expected to open up the Nigerian defence for the forwards ahead of him.
The ’10’ role is one he has barely played since his Tottenham days, however, and taking him out of natural position could, conversely, see his influence marginalised.
Playing opposite the former Tottenham midfielder will be a former Chelsea midfielder. Although John Obi Mikel is widely regarded as a defensive midfielder, he began his career in a more prominent attacking role.
It could well be this aspect of his game he will need to reprise if Nigeria are to fare well. There are plenty other anchoring midfielders in the Super Eagles squad to provide his cover, however, how rusty he proves to be in playing his preferred position will have a huge impact in their overall performance.
Reputations preceding them
Many people have made Argentina and Croatia the clear favourites to progress from Group D, however, both teams struggled to book their respective passage to Russia. A play-off against Greece was needed by Croatia after Iceland finished ahead of them in UEFA’s qualifying Group I, while Argentina endured a nervous finish to the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
Looking for only their third victory from their last 10 group stage games at the World (D2, L5), Croatia have often under-performed at the finals in recent years too.
Despite all of this the team’s potential is often placed ahead of other factors in assessing their chances.
Nigeria’s history in the World Cup shows they have made it through the group stages three times in their last five finals, often against the odds from what appeared tricky groups to negotiate.
If Croatia are to live up to expectations in this tournament, they will need to find a way of banishing their recent form in the same way they did in 1998 when they earned a third-place finish to cement their reputation on the world stage.
German coach, Gernot Rohr, has stabilised the club since his appointment two years ago, but has recently opted to throw doubt over Nigeria’s gameplan.
His switch to a back-three in the final friendly has hinted he may employ a more defensively rigid formation during this tournament.
Without a natural ‘number 10’ style player, Nigeria are risking a lack of creativity in playing with five midfielders.
This 3-5-2 formation could potentially prevent Croatia dominating the central area, an area they’re particularly strong in this summer, but possibly at the price of a lack of penetration themselves.
While Nigeria do have pace in their attack, they need to find a way in which to fully use it against their opponents.
Changing tactics at this late stage in their preparations could well prove to be more detrimental than beneficial, especially if they fall behind in a game and need to draw in their faith in the system they play.
Prediction: Croatia 1-1 Nigeria
With both sides not wanting to suffer an opening game defeat, this could very well prove to be a cautious and unadventurous match.
Both sides are likely to put their emphasis into the midfield area and, if they do, they could well find themselves cancelling each other out and looking for moments of magic to make the difference in the scoreline.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss Group D in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.
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