Nigeria’s Super Eagles will look to open their Group D campaign at the 2018 World Cup with a win when they face Croatia at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Saturday, June 16, kick-off at 8pm.
Nigeria were arguably Africa’s most impressive team through the qualification tournament for Russia 2018, but their warm-up results have been less than inspiring: they drew 1-1 at home to DR Congo in late May before suffering defeats to England (1-2) and the Czech Republic (0-1) in their last two matches.
Despite their stuttering form in the lead-up to the tournament, coach Gernot Rohr has expressed confidence in his side’s ability to compete in what will be a very testing pool.
And one can understand the German tactician’s confidence: the Super Eagles boast a powerful line-up featuring Premier League stars such as Victor Moses and Wilfred Ndidi, the experienced John Obi Mikel, who directs traffic through the middle of the park, and an efficient and effective striker in Odion Ighalo – while still having the likes of Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho to back him up.
Yet the Nigerians’ Achilles heel is their defence: they do not have a settled goalkeeper and their centre-back combination of William Trooset-Ekong and Leon Balogun looks good on paper but has yet to really gel out on the pitch.
Croatia already have a taste for beating West African powerhouses, having overcome Senegal in their final warm-up game last Friday, and they have also tested themselves against Mexico (1-0 win) and Brazil (0-2 loss).
Zlatko Dalic’s side have perhaps been underestimated in the lead-up to Russia 2018. They boast two of the world’s finest central midfielders in Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric – two true ‘pass masters’ – and in forward Mario Mandzukic they have a tireless runner whose selfless play will open up spaces for others to capitalise on.
Yet they too can be exploited at the back, where their experienced defence is either slow and ageing (Verdan Corluka and Ivan Strinic are both 30-plus) or is a calamity waiting to happen, best exemplified by Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren.
There is no previous history between the teams, as this will be their first meeting in international football. Nigeria are the higher ranked team and have more World Cup pedigree, but it is their energy and physicality which should give them the edge over Croatia’s technical proficiency.
I wonder how many goals Nigeria can get from set plays! The play of the Super Eagles has often unduly been limited to goals from open play. This is not enough.
There would be free kicks and of course corner kicks. Are we simply going to do trial and errors? On the other hand we should be on the lookout (more like wary of) for the Croatian set plays, especially freekicks and corners (where Dejan Lovren, Mario Mandzukic and Andreij Kramaric are deadly).
Where will the match be won? The answer will be answered tonight in Kaliningrad.
Andreij Kramaric vs William Troost-Ekong
This should be a battle to behold. Kramaric has his way of disorganizing opposing defenses with his imposing bulk, taking out up to two defenders at a time. This creates space for his strike partners to utilize. He is the target of crosses swang in by Perisic and Rebic, but with and some skills at his feet he would be a handful for the Eagles defence. Ekong is the Eagles best bet of neutralizing Kramaric. The Bursaspor player has improved tremendously in both his skill and confidence as a stopper. Having sharpened his tackles with his feet for a man of his size he would be the Eagles most reliable weapon at the rear especially with doubts over Balogun’s fitness.
Mario Mandzukic vs Leon Balogun
Balogun’s fitness is still a cause for concern for Nigeria. On his day he remains one of the best defenders in Africa. Mario Mandzukic is not gifted with the pace the, however the experienced Juventus player combines a high work rate with predatory instincts. Described as “an intelligent frontrunner capable of bringing his team mates into play and finishing coolly” Balogun would have to be at peak fitness to neutralize the former Bayern Munich striker.
Ivan Perisic vs Shehu Abdullahi
Shehu was average against the Czechs. There would be very little margin of error however when he comes up against Perisic (Rohr would go for his experience over Tyronne Ebuehi). Perisic combines quick creative player with good delivery and goal scoring. His assets in qualifiers for Croatia is glaring testimony of his pervading threat to the Blades from the left. Shehu has experience on his side in and some eye catching form in Turkey. He would have to disrupt the supply line from Modric and prevent him from even a whiff at the Nigerian goal area. Thus Shehu may have to be more cautious in joining the attack in order not to be exposed on the break. He be up for a full day’s work!
Ante Rebic vs Bryan Idowu
Idowu will be preferred to Elderson Echiejille despite only playing five times for the Eagles. He gets the nod given Elderson’s lack of pace vis-à-vis the naked threat of Ante Rebic on the right. Gifted with flight, skill and an accurate right foot, the winger would be one of Croatia’s main threats. With a mere 5 caps Idowu is a novice at the biggest stage and probably a risk at left back. But he’s shown cool headedness before and would have to close Rebic down with urgency to snuff out the abundance of chances he creates.
Danijel Subasic vs Francis Uzoho
This is a contest between two talented goalkeepers. Croatia have not had much to complain about Subasic. Uzoho has on the other hand given Nigerians nervous shocks. Question is will Uzoho turn up between the sticks on Saturday? It could make or unmake the Super Eagles.
Luka Modric vs Wilfred Ndidi
This is the biggest battle that Ndidi has faced since breaking into the national team and could decide who wins this game. Modric is the X factor in the Croatia midfield. When he gets going he can undo any team with his intelligent passing, aggressive surges and long range shooting. His strikes from the distance and freekicks are no fluke as he’s repeated the dose several times in his illustrious playing spell at Real Madrid. Ndidi would have to skillfully (with very few fouls) prevent Modric from playing by giving him little space to distribute or shoot. Ndidi has endeared himself to Nigerian fans with his no retreat cover he provides for the backline of the Super Eagles. Although Oghenekaro Etebo’s presence would ease pressure on the Leicester City player, if there’s anybody up for this duel it has to be Ndidi. Ndidi would have to make his quicker reaction and gait count against Modric.
Ivan Rakitic vs John Obi Mikel
John Obi Mikel is used to playing in a more advance role behind the lead forwards. He usually shows appreciable telepathy with Ndidi. In Rakitic, Obi faces the creative play maker in the Croatia engine room. Together with Modric, the midfielder who plays for Barcelona has struck something in special. Rakitic also possesses strike from distance but cannot be described as world class like his decorated partner. Obi’s grit must surface against this dangerous opponent, added to his great technique and passing with an expected link up with Alex Iwobi in attack, the former Nigerian U-20 player should come up tops here.
Domagoj Vida vs Alex Iwobi
One of the most improved defenders in the team, Vida is indispensable member of Croatia’s squad. This is no over statement considering his ability to play at left back. Iwobi has shown enough fight, flight and ability to start on the right for Nigeria (ahead of Ahmed Musa). The youngster’s maturation process has been phenomenal since his baptism of fire in 2015. He sometimes hangs onto the ball for too long or unleashes wasteful final balls. Iwobi is however relentless in going forward, can successfully take on opponents with his deft right foot and has an excellent recovery. Vida wins on experience but Iwobi’s all action style would ensure the Croatian man of steel’s rigidness may be exposed and perhaps more importantly the defender would be restricted from bombing forward on the overlap. Iwobi must show variety in taking on Vida since any predictability would leave him completely outclassed. He must also be given the freedom to switch wings occasionally if he gets too stuck.
Dejan Lovren vs Odion Ighalo
A world class battle awaits us. No doubt one of the best centerbacks if not the best in the Premier League, the Liverpool man is key to keeping out the Super Eagles from getting a go. His physical presence is combined with good ability with his feet and excellent aerial ability. Ighalo faces an uphill task in the aerial battle but the Changchun man has sown a keen poacher’s instinct in his lightening quick reactions to opportunities. The striker’s knack to wear down attackers with his body protection of the ball and getting inevitably be fouled may create problems for Lovren whose frustrations with strikers is evident. This hardly erodes much from a man of the class of Lovren. Ighalo could play decoy with Lovren and open up the Croatian defence.
Sime Vrsaljko vs Victor Moses
Moses looks set to replicate his scintillating role in the qualifiers at the left side of midfield. The Chelsea winger is good in the air but his skillful approach and ability to send in the crosses satisfies Rohr. It may not be his natural position but this system allows him to join Ighalo upfront to cause damage. His ability to provide cover for Idowu would be the main grey area when he comes up against Vrsaljko. Strong, Skillful, able to split defenses and with feet packed with dynamite for long range shots, Moses would hold Nigeria’s aces at this world cup and especially in the opening game against Croatia.