On paper, this match-up was tantalising. Croatia and Nigeria both have the capacity to thrill and disappoint, and it seemed like the clash between the two could provide plenty of excitement and plenty of drama. In the end, it achieved neither, with the Croatians putting in a workmanlike but rather unspectacular performance and their opponents struggling to make headway in attack. By the final whistle Croatia had a two-goal buffer, with an own goal and a penalty their reward for a disciplined performance against a toothless Nigerian side.
Croatia settled into the rhythm of the game fairly quickly, knocking the ball around with confidence, controlling the majority of possession and largely keeping the Nigerians away from their attacking third. For all that control, however, they never really looked like making an impact on the scoreboard, even if their front four of Mario Mandžukić, Ante Rebić, Ivan Perišić and Andrej Kramarić were occasionally threatening. Then, after a reasonably mundane first half hour in which neither team looked like making inroads, Croatia took the lead.Embed from Getty Images
Croatia celebrate after opening the scoring through an Oghenekaro Etebo own goal. The goal was very scrappy, with a number of players getting touches to bundle a Luka Modrić corner into the back of the net.
The goal originated from a corner, but it still came slightly out of the blue. Luka Modrić, whose new role deeper in midfield had left him largely isolated from the attack, delivered the corner perfectly to Rebić at the front post. That was where the beauty of the move stopped. Eventually the ball made its way across goal, rolling meekly past Francis Uzoho into the back of the net. No one player could be called responsible, with Rebić’s flick-on header, Mandžukić’s outmanoeuvring of William Troost-Ekong and subsequent headed shot and Oghenekaro Etebo’s unlucky diversion of said shot into his own net all contributing to the end result. It was scrappy, but it did the trick for Croatia. The fact that they still hadn’t put a shot on target didn’t really matter too much.
After taking the lead the Croats simply continued to play as they had before, doing nothing spectacular but keeping the Nigerians from gaining any traction with their controlled passing and security in possession. Victor Moses threatened to break free on a couple of occasions, but a couple of near-breaks was hardly enough to send shivers through the Croatian defence. The half time break didn’t halt their charge, and they created a few more chances but, most importantly, they were secure in their one-goal advantage and never gave Nigeria the window of opportunity they were after. Then they scored again, and the result was beyond doubt.Embed from Getty Images
Francis Uzoho (front) makes a save to deny Mateo Kovačić (second from right) late in the game. Uzoho became the first teenage goalkeeper to appear in the tournament since 2002, and he put in a decent showing.
Once again, the goal started with a corner and Modrić’s excellent delivery into the penalty area. This time, however, it didn’t pick out a Croatian player, with Leon Balogun heading the ball away from a dangerous spot and Nigeria emerging with the ball, seemingly unscathed. Unfortunately for the Super Eagles, Troost-Ekong decided to use illegal tactics to keep Mandžukić out of the action, wrapping both arms around the big striker before bringing him to the ground in a move which would not have been out of place at a WWE event. Even more unfortunately for Nigeria, Troost-Ekong’s roughhousing of his dangerous opponent did not go unnoticed by Sandro Ricci, allowing Modrić to slam the penalty home.
Down two goals, Nigeria tried desperately to make a final push, but there was no coming back for the Super Eagles and their lacklustre attack. Croatia had a chance to increase their lead late when Mateo Kovačić forced a good save from Uzoho, but that missed opportunity won’t weigh too heavily on their minds after their professional ninety minute effort. Nigeria’s struggles, on the other hand, show they have a long way to go, and they will need to turn things around quickly if they want to hang around past the group stage.
Kaliningrad – Kaliningrad Stadium
Croatia 2 (Etebo 32 og, Modrić 71 pen)
Referee: Sandro Ricci (Bra)
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Subašić – Vrsaljko, Lovren, Vida, Strinić; Rakitić, Modrić; Perišić, Kramarić (Brozović 60), Rebić (Kovačić 78); Mandžukić (Pjaca 85).
Nigeria (4-2-3-1): Uzoho – Abdullahi Shehu, Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Idowu; Ndidi, Etebo; Moses, Mikel (Nwankwo 88), Iwobi (Musa 62); Ighalo (Iheanacho 75).
1. Mario Mandžukić (Croatia)
Mandžukić played a key role in both of Croatia’s goals. He was the last Croatian to touch the ball before Etebo diverted it into his own net, and he won the penalty that sealed the win after Troost-Ekong crudely felled him in the box. He got himself into good positions throughout and used his size to his advantage, and he caused plenty of issues for the Nigerian defence.
2. Ante Rebić (Croatia)
Rebić was everywhere for the Croatians, spending time on both the left and right wings and working very hard wherever he happened to be positioned. He was tireless in both attack and defence, chasing up every ball and proving to be a handful whenever he received possession in attack. He was the most dangerous player early on, and did enough to earn another run in a strong Croatian team.
3. Luka Modrić (Croatia)
Modrić started the game quietly, but his set piece delivery created all of his side’s meaningful chances and Croatia’s play improved dramatically when he got more time on the ball in attack. He sealed the win with a perfectly taken penalty, and, given his high standards, left himself plenty of room for improvement for the rest of the tournament. He could have a big impact.
4. Victor Moses (Nigeria)
Moses was Nigeria’s most active player, and was the only Super Eagle on the field who looked capable of making his own opportunities. He showed glimpses of his immense talents and gave Ivan Strinić plenty to think about, and he was one of the hardest workers on the field. If he gets some support, he could be a very dangerous player in the rest of the tournament.
5. Ivan Rakitić (Croatia)
Rakitić’s role was mainly in the background, but he was very secure with the ball at his feet and that security allowed the rest of the team to thrive. He showed his vision and quality with some of his incisive passes, and he performed his defensive duties in the centre of midfield well. When he and Modrić find their rhythm as a combination the Croatians will be tough to stop.