With the Super Eagles starting their World Cup campaign on Saturday, we shall take a look at first opponent Croatia.
Croatia’s ambitions of reaching the World Cup 2018 knockout stages will largely depend on the form of their inspirational playmaker Lucas Modric, who has had a fine season with Real Madrid. For Croatia, he remains the main man and his array of skills, which made him one of Real’s key players in winning the 2018 Champions League will be their best hope of avoiding an early exit in Russia. Also, the experience of striker Mario Mandzukic is a big boost for the Croatian team.
Having to make a pool of star players happy highlights one of Zlatko Dalić’s biggest problems. He will have to play a 4-2-3-1 style against the African team, which might see two or three of his big name players drop to the bench. The pattern should be exploited by Nigeria who will pack men at the middle of the park.
The emphasis of Dalić’s style is fast passing, possession-based technical football. Croatia has the quality in midfield to keep hold of the ball, and while they are a little toothless up front despite the presence of Mandzukic. Dalić has managed to find balance in an unbalanced team, but any injuries to the centre-backs or forwards will prove a major headache. The array of talent in midfield could just be enough to paper over the cracks.
Due to the nature of their qualification Croatia are under no public pressure. Getting to the tournament was through the dreaded playoffs, but Dalić has built a siege mentality in the team. The coach has installed his never-say-die attitude, a fact that Croatians learned in a tough way, and this side has a lot more quality.
Croatia is a good team, but as does Nigeria, there is a big question mark over their capability of overturning the weaknesses to their advantage. They have a good atmosphere in the team but tend to rely on the inspiration of the star players. Everything is possible in this clash.