This is a match that may well decide who grabs the runners-up spot in the group as two teams tipped before the start of the tournament to likely finish in the second position behind Argentina in Group D go head to head at the Kaliningrad Stadium in their World Cup opener when Croatia take on Nigeria.
The Messi led Argentina team, who face Iceland in their opener, are most people’s firm favourites to top the standings, so both teams will be keen to avoid defeat as the battle for the second spot is likely to be close and hard-fought.
You May Also Read: 10 Interesting Facts About Super Eagles World Cup Jersey Numbers
Croatia boast of a world-class midfield that can rival any in the world, talents such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic are among the best in their position, Croatia has been tipped for a decent run in Russia, but they struggled somewhat during qualifying.
Zlatko Dalic’s side pipped Ukraine to second place in their group, finishing three points ahead of Ukraine, and two behind table-topping Iceland team who stunned many with their performance.
Finishing runner’s up means Croatia had to play a two-legged playoff against Greece, which they won by the comfortable aggregate scoreline of 4-1 thanks to a resounding victory in the first leg.
Since qualifying, the Croats have registered two wins and as many defeats in international friendlies, keeping only one clean sheet during that run and finding the net three times.
These were testing fixtures, all against fellow World Cup qualifiers, and the defeats came against Brazil and Peru, and the wins over Mexico and Senegal.
You May Also Read: World Cup 2018 – The Complete Guide To World Cup Team Nicknames
Those defeats to South American opposition are the only ones of Dalic’s tenure, with the 51-year-old having otherwise won four and drawn one since taking the helm seven matches ago.
Looking further back, Croatia have a good record against teams from outside of the two leading confederations, Europe and South America, having won eight of their last 10 games against such opponents.
Their record at World Cup finals, however, has been shaky in recent tournaments as the Blades have not progressed through the group stage since 1998 when they finished in third place.
The Croats have only ever faced one other African qualifier at the finals, beating Cameroon 4-0 in the group stage of the last World Cup.
The Super Eagles soared during World Cup qualifying, becoming the first African team to book their spot in Russia with a 1-0 victory over Zambia in October.
Nigeria were drawn in a tough qualifying group alongside Algeria and continental champions Cameroon, but that win gave them an unassailable 13-point lead at the top of the table before the campaign was through.
Gernot Rohr’s team produced pacey, energetic performances throughout qualifying but they have been unable to carry their impressive form over to subsequent international friendlies against higher-calibre opposition.
Since beating Poland in Wroclaw thanks to a Victor Moses penalty, the Nigerians have gone four matches without a win, a run which includes a 2-1 friendly defeat to England at Wembley Stadium.
Chelsea star Moses has relished playing in a more advanced role for his country, having scored 11 times in 34 matches for them so far.
More experienced players like him and captain John Obi Mikel who has 85 international caps to his name will be vitally important to Nigeria at the finals, given that Rohr has taken a relatively young squad to Russia.
You May Also Read: World Cup 2018: Advanced Computer Model Predicts Winners Of Each Group
It is easy to see why Croatia are the favourites. Nigeria has scored just five times in their last eight games and has a poor record at World Cups. Since France 98, the Super Eagles have won just one of their last 12 matches at the finals.
Croatia Team News
Modric is expected to play a key role for Croatia in their group opener against Nigeria, operating higher up the pitch than he usually plays for Real Madrid. This means Rakitic will likely play in a defensive midfield position alongside Marcelo Brozovic.
Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is pushing for a start after sitting out the 2-0 friendly defeat to Brazil at Anfield, while Ivan Strinic could start on the opposite side of the defence.
Dalic has a selection headache up front, with Mandzukic in good goalscoring form for his country and Andrej Kramaric impressing in World Cup warm-up matches, but the head coach is likely to select the former due to his experience.
Nigeria Team News
Nigeria, meanwhile, has slight concerns over their inexperienced goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, as the 19-year-old has become their only viable option since Vincent Enyeama’s retirement and Carl Ikeme’s leukaemia diagnosis.
Mikel, Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi are expected to be handed key midfield roles for the Super Eagles, providing support for a lone striker, most likely Odion Ighalo.
Ighalo has been preferred to Kelechi Iheanacho in recent fixtures, which suggests that the Leicester City man will likely start on the bench.
Croatia Possible Starting Lineup:
Subasic; Vida, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Strinic; Brozovic, Rakitic; Kramaric, Modric, Perisic; Mandzukic
Nigeria Possible Starting Lineup:
Francis Uzoho, Abdullahi Shehu, Balogun, Troost-Ekong, Brian Idowu, Oghenekaro Etebo, Wilfred Ndidi, Obi Mikel, Alex Iwobi, Victor Moses, Odion Ighalo.
Head To Head
This will be the first time that Croatia and Nigeria have faced each other.
The form of both teams suggests that Croatia is in better shape and improving with every match under Dalic, while Nigeria’s good form has petered off in the run-up to the World Cup. There is a slight gulf in quality between the two squads, with players such as Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic certain to have the edge over a comparatively inexperienced Nigeria side.
However, the fact is that it will be a big mistake to judge the Nigeria team based on their Friendly performance, they are capable of great things on their day, although Croatia may have all the stars, we think the Nigerian team will edge this one in what might turn out to be a very tense and competitive matchup. We predict a 1-0 win for Nigeria.
Kick Off Time
Vatreni (The Blazers) of Croatia and the Super Eagles of Nigeria FIFA World Cup group C match take place at the Kaliningrad Stadium on Saturday, June 16 and Kick off time is 8 pm Nigerian time.