Stakes can hardly be greater for Nigeria and Croatia in their first round clash as a mistake here could likely mean the farewell from the knockout stage ambitions.
The highly-important affair is scheduled for Saturday evening at Kaliningrad Stadium.
Nigeria topped their qualifying group in some style ahead of the likes of Cameroon, Zambia and Algeria.
The Super Eagles will be a tough nut to crack to all teams in the group.
Croatia possess the talent for a deep run here.
The opening affair will be a massive test to the European hopefuls who could struggle to break the deadlock past Rohr’s well-organized defensive line.
Croatia are hoping to see off Nigeria and put the pressure away ahead of what could likely be the battle for the top spot in the group later on against Argentina in the second round. The first top spot likely be paired with France in the last 16 round.
This is why the opening contest is of a massive importance for Croatia whose ambitions are much higher than those of Nigeria’s.
The Blades can definitely justify these with the immense talent all over the pitch, particularly in the center of the park.
Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are two world-class midfielders in their primes and they both enjoyed remarkable seasons with Real Madrid and Barcelona. Ivan Perisic and Andej Kramaric will provide more attacking options, while Mario Mandzukic will no doubts be a massive threat as the lone striker in Dalic’s 4-2-3-1 formation.
Nigeria will certainly be a tough nut to crack for all rivals in the group. Gernot Rohr’s troops proved the quality by topping a tricky qualifying group with 14 points from six matches against the likes of Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia. They went on to beat group rivals Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in November last year. However, the team won’t come into the opening fixture in the highest of spirits following the streak of three losses and a draw in last four friendlies.
Croatia Team News
Dalic has the luxury of a squad free from injuries ahead of the tie.
Luka Modric is moved much higher up compared to his role in Real Madrid.
This will force Ivan Rakitic to have much more defensive tasks alongside Marcelo Brozovic at the defensive midfielder position.
Ante Rebic showed fantastic displays in warm-up friendlies and he could steal a place in the starting line-up on the right flank.
Croatia Predicted Starting Eleven (4-2-3-1): Subasic, Vida, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Strinic, Brozovic, Rakitic, Kramaric, Modric, Perisic, Mandzukic.
Nigeria Team News
Gernot Rohr does not have significant injury woes either.
All eyes will be on John Obi Mikel and his ability to complement Rohr’s pair of defensive midfielders Wilfred Ndidi and John Ogu.
The attacking line will rely heavily on Chelsea’s Victor Moses who had an excellent campaign this season in the Premier League.
Rohr will likely play with one striker, meaning Odion Ighalo will start.
Nigeria’s biggest concern is the goalkeeper position as Vincent Enyeama retired while Carl Ikeme was diagnosed leukaemia. This means that the 19-year-old Francis Uzoho has to be the top option.
Nigeria Predicted Starting Eleven (4-2-3-1): Uzoho, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Abdullahi, Idowu, Ndidi, Ogu, Iwobi, Mikel, Moses, Ighalo
Croatia Nigeria Head-to-head
This will be the first ever head to head encounter between Croatia and Nigeria.
The Blades had a roller-coaster qualifying campaign which saw them finish second to Iceland in their respective group. The current head coach Zlatko Dalic came as a saviour right ahead of the crucial match against Ukraine away in Kyiv, just days after the team failed to dispatch the modest Finland side on home soil.
Croats showed the huge mental strength to pass the stern Ukrainian test and they had no troubles whatsoever easing past Greece in the play-offs winning the first leg 4-1 on the home patch. Croatia continued to play hot and cold in post-qualifying friendlies, but they will enter the tournament off the back of a 2-1 victory over Senegal in the final warm-up.
Croatia found it tough to produce up front in recent friendlies and they might struggle to break the deadlock past the well-organized defensive line of Nigeria. The Super Eagles are led by the German manager Gernot Rohr who managed to introduce discipline which led the Nigerians towards such a successful qualifying campaign after all.