The Super Eagles of Nigeria open their Russia 2018 World Cup campaign against Croatia on Saturday at the magnificent Kaliningrad stadium in Russia
With the setup of the group and with Argentina and an unpredictable Iceland waiting for both teams in the wings the match is a must win for both sides
On paper with the array of stars it presents Croatia look the better team and more likely to edge this but the Nigerian Eagles are more than capable of causing an upset
The Super Eagles have been underwhelming in their pre – tournament warm-up matches narrowly edging Poland then going on to lose to Serbia then drawing with Congo in Nigeria and losing their last 2 games against England and Czech Republic.
However Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is not deceived by the Super Eagles poor run of results.
“Nigeria, we know their quality and how dangerous they are, especially in the attack.” Dalic stated during his pre-match conference on Friday
This is a game that will be decided in the midfield where the Croatian teams strength lies. Whichever team is first able to dominate the midfield will most likely win the game. Croatia has a star studded midfield which includes Barcelona’s Rakatic Real Madrids Modric and Inter winger Persic but the Eagles are no slouches in that department either and while they may not have profiles as impressive as the Croatians the likes of Wilfred Ndidi Mikel Obi Etebo and Alex Iwobi are mostly younger and impressive in their own rights, and if they can use their speed and physicality to disrupt the Croatians smooth passing flow they may swing things in their favor
Super Eagles captain Mikel Obi is aware of the need to dominate the Midfield
“It’s going to be very interesting because they like to keep the ball and so do we,” Obi Mikel said on Friday pre-match conference
Ivan Rakitić vs Wilfred Ndidi
Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić is one of the most creative players on the Croatian national team and alongside Modric will try and dictate play for the Croatians with Rakitić likely to hold a deeper attacking midfield role often surging forward to feed and support the strikers
It will be up to Nigeria’s midfield lynchpin Wilfred Ndidi to stifle Rakitić and Croatia’s play and if anyone can Ndidi can. The super athletic 21 year old was the best tackler in the EPL and an asset in breaking up play for any team. He has the legs and pace to match Rakitić and his ball winning and recycling abilities will be key if Nigeria is to take control of the midfield
Dejan Lovren vs Odion Ighalo
Odion Ighalo will have to bring his A-game to get the better of Croatia’s experienced defender Dejan Lovren. One thing Ighalo has going in his favour is pace and Lovren has been known to get caught out for pace at times
At 28 its expected but while Loveren may have made plenty of costly mistakes at Liverpool in the past, his performances in recent months have been superb and he remains a key and experienced very technical defender. Ighalo on his part has only scored once for his country in the last two years
Mario Mandzukic vs Troost Ekong
The Bursaspor of Turkey defender has been the standout performer in the Super Eagles defence in recent times and is an emerging force for the Africans. But the 24 year old will be sorely tested by Juventus striker Mandzukic and will have to keep his concentration on 100%.
Mandzukic is an imposing, physical player with a strong aerial presence something we can also ascribe to Ekong who is not one to shy away from a tussle
The Croatia striker however has slowed a little and has scored only five goals from his 32 Serie A appearances last season and an Ekong at his very best should be able to keep him in check
Potential match winners
If back to his best Chelsea’s Victor Moses remains Nigeria’s most dangerous player and the most likely to lift them when the need arises. Arsenals Alex Iwobi however of late has shown he also has what it takes to be a match winner for the team while Crotia will bank on the experienced 30-year-old Real Madrid playmaker, Luka Modric to bail them out of a tight spot
Leon Balogun is a major doubt for the Nigerians having picked up an Injury during training. The Nigerian coach has said he remains at a 50-50 chance of making the game. Rohr is keeping his starting 11 close to his chest but we can expect to see Uzoho in goal Mikel and Iwobi and Ndidi in midfield. Croatia have no injury worries going into the game and will likely start with their midfield stars Modric Persic and Rakatic with Manduzic upfront
Nigeria vs Croatia kicks off at 8pm BST