Croatia and Nigeria served up a snooze-fest in Group D but the former ultimately prevailed 2-0. Oghenekaro Etebo’s own goal and Luka Modric’s penalty was enough to give Vatreni the three points in Kaliningrad.
It was always going to be tough for Nigeria against highly-rated Croatia but they contributed to their own downfall, displaying some extraordinary naivete in attack and in conceding the penalty that led to Croatia’s second.
Just one look at Croatia’s team sheet against Nigeria and you knew that the Eastern Europeans possessed quality in abundance and were easily one of the best, unfancied teams in the competitions, under-fancied if you will.
The starting line-up contained a glittering array of superstars, including lynchpin and captain Luka Modric. The Real Madrid man was, however, not the only player from a major European club on display. Ivan Rakitic, Andrej Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic all started for Zlatko Dalic’s side against a potentially tough Nigeria side.
The Africans acknowledged that they were facing a technically superior Croat side led by one of the best midfielders of this generation and were happy to let their opponents have the ball while chasing it. This respect also played its part in suffocating the game, as neither side were able to impose the will in the first half.
Croatia did have the better chances, but Nigeria’s tough backline coupled with some inept finishing saw them engage in a game of sterile domination. It will be doubly, if not more, difficult, to break down a stubborn Icelandic wall.
Luka Modric started in the position that he is used to being deployed at Real Madrid: the deep lying playmaker. Starting alongside Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, the plan from Croatia was clear: Keep the ball in midfield and pass it around, and hope that Mandzukic and Andrej Kramaric would do their job and put the ball in the back of the net.
The problem with that plan was two-fold; Mandzukic, although he can play on the left, can also be deployed through the centre and is more creative than his Hoffenheim compatriot.
The Juventus forward is more versatile but is essentially a refined version of Kramaric and took up the same positions in what seemed like a two-top system. Once Marcelo Brozovic came on, that gave Modric the license to roam forward and take up more advanced positions.
This led to him linking up closer to the forwards, leaving the shielding duties to Rakitic and Brozovic. Another option off the bench is Mateo Kovacic, who can also play in centre midfield. Will Zlatko Dalic opt for a one-top system and free Modric of his ball carrier duties? Against stronger sides, you suspect that Modric will continue playing deepest.
Croatia ran out comfortable winners but were lethargic in phases. Their end product left much to be desired and although there was individual skill on display, their link-up play in the final third was far from perfect. Too often they got into dangerous positions only to kick the ball over the bar, or simply fail to find a team-mate.
A possible scapegoat from this uninspiring performance might be Kramaric, who Dalic might be tempted to replace with either Brozovic or Kovacic, forming a triumvirate in midfield. Perisic, on the left, looked the most likely to break through, and a wide three-man midfield might lift some of the defensive responsibility off him, pushing him further forward.
As for Nigeria, the less said the better. They were poor from start to finish, and if Croatia were patchy, the Africans were dismal. Etebo’s own goal might have been the straw which broke the camel’s back, but Croatia created those half-chances unlike their rivals, who failed to serve up any rhythm for the duel save for a brief period at the start of the second half.
They sorely lack a creative spark and that will prove to be their undoing in Russia. They may need a Jay-Jay Okocha more than ever now, as John Obi Mikel and gang served up a very disjointed performance.
All African teams in Russia have lost so far, with Morocco, Egypt and Nigeria managing to taste defeat in contrasting circumstances. It will be upto Tunisia and Senegal to stem the tide and restore some pride to the continent.