Eagles lose opening game 0-2 to Croatia

Eagles lose opening game 0-2 to Croatia
June 17 07:34 2018 Print This Article

Croatia, considered tournament dark horses by many, cruised through their opening encounter with Nigeria thanks to an own goal from Oghenekaro Etebo and a penalty from Luka Modric.

The victory leaves Croatia top of Group D but after a largely forgettable game in which they did not manage a shot on target from open play until the 92nd minute Zlatko Dalic’s men will know they must improve if they are to make the kind of impression on the World Cup that their roster of talent suggests they are capable of.

Modric, however, seemed to acknowledge that the might of Argentina and the sheer willpower of Iceland are likely to provide sterner tests than Nigeria. “I believe that on the wings of this win we will up our game and continue our journey in the way that we planned before coming here,” he said.

Croatia have failed to get past the group stage since the stunning third-place finish in 1998 inspired by Davor Suker’s goals, and have been drawn in perhaps the closest approximation to a Group of Death that this tournament has.

They were the firm favourites for this game, with one of the most impressive midfields in the tournament on paper, and many in the so-called “golden generation” likely to be playing at their last World Cup. Nigeria, by contrast, have the youngest squad at the World Cup, with the veteran midfielder Mikel John Obi guiding a youthful team epitomised by the goalkeeper, 19-year-old Francis Uzoho.

The first half an hour was rather insipid, with both sides comfortable on the ball but unable to find a way through a tough midfield, and repeated stoppages for petty fouls. Croatia looked more lame horse than dark horse at times but showed flashes of danger, with Ivan Perisic firing just over the bar and Mario Mandzukic just past the post from distance. Nigeria also looked dangerous going forward, surging towards the penalty area on a number of occasions without being able to find the final product.

Just after the half-hour mark, Modric, who had previously put in two poor corners from the left, hit a delightful ball in from his third attempt, this time from the right. The outswinging ball was flicked on from the edge of the six-yard box by Ante Rebic towards Mandzukic, whose diving header was going wide but was helped into the net with a hefty deflection off the back of Etebo’s leg.

The fortunate goal seemed to breathe some life into Croatia, and a few minutes later Andrej Kramaric headed just over from Rakitic’s cross. Nigeria spent first-half injury time going forward but a speculative shot from Victor Moses that sailed over the bar after a spell of pressure summed up their half.

The game meandered on after the interval, both sides looking reasonably competent but largely uninspiring, and Croatia always the more likely to produce a flash of skill or a dangerous attack. Rebic fired over from a brilliantly whipped-in cross by Perisic, though the linesman had his flag up – wrongly, it seemed – for offside against Perisic.

With 20 minutes remaining Croatia won a penalty as Mandzukic was needlessly fouled by William Troost-Ekong, who was climbing all over him at a corner. It was the kind of penalty that is often not given but Nigeria could have few complaints that it had been. Modric dispatched the penalty coolly to make it 2-0, in what was Croatia’s first shot on target.

In the end, it was a comfortable victory, with encouraging performances from Rebic and Kramaric in midfield and Modric providing the occasional searching ball. Croatia now control the group but the real test of their World Cup ambitions will come in Nizhny Novgorod on Thursday, when they meet Argentina, who drew 1-1 with Iceland on Saturday.

“It’s going to be tough, they will have to play for a win because of the scoreline of today’s game that they never expected, but this is an important game for us as well,” said Modric.

[Guardian UK]