Group D favourites Croatia kicked off their World Cup 2018 campaign in delightful fashion as they registered a compelling 2:0 victory against Nigeria. A first-half own goal from Oghenekaro Etebo gave Hrvatska a lead but Luka Modrić’s second-half penalty made sure that the European giants secure all three points against the Super Eagles.

On paper, both sides started with a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Nigeria, in particular, maintaining their shape throughout the course of the game. Boasting the youngest squad of this year’s FIFA World Cup, the African giants relied on the trio of Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo and Alex Iwobi to provide the attacking spark in the final third. In midfield, the duo of Wilfred Ndidi and Oghenekaro Etebo started alongside captain John Obi Mikel, who started in a slightly advanced position.

As for Croatia, they opted to start with a similar 4-2-3-1 formation, which they kept throughout the ninety minutes but more on that later. Two of Europe’s most gifted midfielders in Ivan Rakitić and Luka Modric partnered alongside each other in the middle third. Head coach Zlatko Dalić, however, opted for the attacking duo of Mario Mandžukić and Andrej Kramarić. This came as a surprise for many fans, who wanted to see Milan striker Nikola Kalinic getting the nod ahead of Mandžukić. Ante Rebić and Ivan Perisić were deployed out wide.

The game started in a fairly decent manner with Croatia looking to use their strength in wider positions to cause havoc in the Nigerian defence. And it should be said that the Croats actually did quite well to utilize the pace and trickery of their attacker in an attempt to bamboozle in the opposing defence.

Ante Rebić and Andrej Kramarić, in particular, were involved in the thick of things for Croatia’s offensive play. While Kramarić used his off the ball movements and clever passing to calibrate the forward line, Rebić’s dynamism coupled with his sheer determination helped the Europeans power through the Nigerian defence.

The captain took the corner that led to the first goal and scored the second.

That being said, however, Croatia’s left-sided overload was quite telling as Ivan Perisić, who started as the Right-Winger, was barely involved in any of their attacking moments, especially in the first half. In addition, Mandžukić also started to grow into the game after making a stuttering start. The former Bayern striker made a clever cutback in the first half that presented Ante Rebić with the opportunity to score his maiden World Cup goal but his shot was blocked by the opposing defender.

Nigeria, on the other hand, had a pretty awful game by their lofty standards. Their midfield, in particular, let them down big time, partly due to the sheer brilliance of Croatia’s midfield duo of Modric and Rakitić.

Having said that, Oghenekaro Etebo was a key figure in Nigeria’s midfield. The 22-year-old made a string of passes from the middle third and was a vital part of their ball circulation. Wilfred Ndidi also made a few contributions with his ferocious tackling and ball-winning qualities, even though the prospect of having to deal with Modrić might have overwhelmed the Leicester City midfielder.

However, arguably the night’s biggest disappointment was the captain himself – John Mikel Obi. The former Chelsea star, despite making a few notable contributions throughout the game, was often clueless in the final third. His bad form coincided with Nigeria’s blunt attack, which was rather evident considering the fact that their first shot on target arrived just before the hour mark.

But at the same time, credit should be given to Croatia as well, who were excellent, to say the least. Zlatko Dalic cleverly managed to utilize the qualities of Croatia’s midfield to help them prevail against Nigeria tonight. His 4-2-3-1 shape often transformed into a classic 4-5-1 without the ball, with Kramarić dropping deeper to cover the vertical spaces in behind main-man Mandžukić.

In attack, the 4-2-3-1 turned into a classic 4-4-2. In this case, Kramarić joined up with Mandžukić to press the opposing defender whilst also using quick link-ups with teammates to create more chances.

Another player who clearly deserves a shoutout is Luka Modrić. The Real Madrid genius deserves a lot of praise for his seemingly effortless passing in and around the midfield zones. He initially partnered up with Rakitić at the start but had the license to go forward whenever necessary with the latter covering him in behind. Marcelo Brozović’s introduction later in the second half, did, however, allow Modrić to roam freely as the central Attacking Midfielder.

Aside from Modrić’s clever play in the middle third, star winger Ivan Perisić also became much more active in the second half. His pin-point crosses not only made life difficult for Nigerian defenders but also asserted more dominance for Croatia over their opposition tonight.

At the end of the day, it was a rather dull game by this World Cup’s standards. Both sides came with their respective strengths but Croatia’s proficiency of using the qualities of their talented players to the fullest was definitely the difference between the two sides.

The win gives Croatia a much-needed boost as they climb to the top of the Group D. Argentina’s draw against Iceland earlier today meant that Lionel Messi’s side are currently tied with Iceland in the second position while Nigeria will have to make up a lot of grounds in the remaining two games if they are to qualify to the knockout rounds for the first time since 1998.

Match Report by Anas Ali

Feature Image via New York Times

Modrić Image via BBC

Modrić stats via Squawka

To read the other match reports from Matchday 3, click here.



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