Croatia started their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign off on the right foot, beating Nigeria 2-0 in their Group D match at Kaliningrad Stadium.
Oghenekaro Etebo scored an own-goal, and Luka Modric converted a penalty to put the final score on the board.
Modric predictably ran the show for Croatia, but while the Real Madrid man lived up to the lofty expectations, Barcelona rival Ivan Rakitic was almost invisible in the first half.
Things improved little after the break, and it was telling Croatia’s grip on the midfield battle didn’t grow firmer until Marcelo Brozovic came on.
Croatia could get away with a poor outing from Rakitic against Nigeria, but he’ll have to greatly elevate his play moving forward.
If his struggles carry over to the next match against Argentina, Mateo Kovacic might be a better option for the knockout stages. The former Inter Milan man plays his club football with Modric and might prove a better partner on this stage.
Between Francis Uzoho, Wilfred Ndidi, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho, the Super Eagles have a ton of exciting talent that should set the team up for years to come. Unfortunately, Nigeria’s top talents all lack the experience to make a difference at this level currently, and it showed against Croatia.
Nigeria had lost four of their last five matches coming in and didn’t look like one of Africa’s elite teams against Croatia. The Europeans are as experienced as they come, and it showed.
The World Cup should provide Nigeria with a great opportunity to learn and grow, but these struggles shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Ivan Rakitic and Ante Rebic proved a major handful for Nigeria’s full-backs, using their devastating pace to great effect. With Modric sending quality long passes throughout the match, both tried to get in behind the defence at every opportunity and succeeded more often than not.
It’s a tactic that should suit Croatia well against bigger teams willing to play a much higher defensive line. Argentina for instance should be the aggressor in the two sides’ match, allowing their opponents to do damage on counterattacks.
With three points already in the bag, things are looking up for the side, but the true test is about to come against the Albiceleste.
The Croats face Argentina on Thursday, while Nigeria take on Iceland on Friday.