Croatia and Nigeria meet for the first time in Kaliningrad on Saturday (kick-off 10 PM EAT) in a World Cup clash that could prove crucial to their chances.
Argentina are hot favourites to win Group D and, with Euro 2016 quarter-finalists Iceland potentially awkward opponents, both sides will aim to boost their hopes of progressing with three points by the Baltic Sea.
Nigeria, the lowest-ranked side in the group, reached the last 16 in Brazil four years ago but come into this tournament having failed to win any of their last four friendlies, with manager Gernot Rohr hinting he will revert back to previous formations to help the Super Eagles seal a victory.
Nigeria’s World Cup nemesis
Nigeria will face Argentina for the fifth time in just their sixth World Cup finals appearance in Russia, and they’re yet to win a single one.
“We were trying out different formations but we are going to switch back to the way we played over the last year coming to this World Cup. If we do exactly what we know we can do, to control the game and be aggressive, we can do well,” he said.
“Our players have a lot to prove and this is a very good stage for them but it’s also important to keep their emotions in check. We are staying humble but we are also ambitious and if we are to get out of this group, we have to make a result against Croatia.”
Croatia boast the likes of Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in their ranks but failed to progress from the group stage in Brazil and needed a play-off to reach Russia.
But manager Zlatko Dalic is confident he has the perfect mix of youth and experience this time around, saying: “We have a very good set of players who are the driving forces of big clubs and young players – it’s a good mixture of youth and experience.
“It is right that expectations are high and we expect from ourselves more than anybody else. I hope we will prove all those flattering epithets right and that this generation will get a result with some luck along the way. We are full of self-belief and ready to show some good football.”
Question marks remain over Croatia’s left-back position, though Ivan Strinic is being tipped to get the nod, as well as how best to deploy versatile forward Andrej Kramaric.
Injury forced Moses Simon to pull out of the Nigeria squad ahead of the tournament, although Leicester midfielder Wilfried Ndidi is fit to play despite some concerns over his inclusion.
This will be the first ever encounter between Croatia and Nigeria. Croatia’s only previous World Cup game against African opposition saw them beat Cameroon 4-0 in June 2014.
Croatia have qualified for their fifth World Cup after beating Greece in the play-offs. They finished third in their first ever appearance (1998) but have since then failed to reach the knockout stages in their three subsequent appearances.
Croatia have lost their opening group game in each of their last three World Cups, their last two openers coming against Brazil (2006, 2014).
The last four World Cup games involving Croatia have produced five red cards (3 for Croatia, 2 for the opponents).
Nigeria have qualified for their sixth World Cup but have won only one of their last 12 games (D3 L8) – against Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014 (1-0). They’ve also failed to win the opening game in their last three appearances (D1 L2), remaining goalless in all three games.
Ivan Perisic was directly involved in exactly half of Croatia’s goals at the last World Cup (2 goals, 1 assist).
On the opening day of the tournament, Nigeria’s squad will have an average age of 25 years and 336 days, the youngest of any team in the competition.
#ObserverSport Pundit’s prediction
I think Croatia will beat Nigeria. I watched Nigeria in the first half against England recently, and they were terrible. But they have already beaten Argentina last year and this is the problem – you get sides who are so inconsistent that you do not really know which one is going to turn up. Meanwhile I do like Croatia, they are a good football team.
Our Pundit Predicts: Croatia 2-1 Nigeria