Croatia – Nigeria

In recent years Croatia have regularly gone into major international tournaments as a dark horse but perhaps off field issues have spilled onto the pitch to prevent them from really reaching their potential. This year they would have felt pretty good going into the World Cup Finals despite an inconsistent Qualifying campaign, but the drama never seems to be too far away from this nation.

The trial involving Zdravko Mamic came to a conclusion a few days ago with the ‘Mr Big’ of Croatian Football being found guilty, but that has also implicated the likes of Dejan Lovren and Luka Modric. With a Croatian squad that have historically had tense relations with one another it is hard to really know how the players are feeling going into the World Cup Finals with this trial also being a key reason the Croatia fans revolted in the Euro 2016 Finals.

Croatia at least come into the World Cup Finals having beaten Senegal 2-1 despite trailing in that final international friendly which was played after the Mamic trial had come to an end. That has to be a positive for their mindset going into the opening World Cup game against Nigeria, but Croatia have to reverse some recent negative history which has seen them win 1 of their last 7 World Cup games. They were unbeaten in 3 Group games at Euro 2016 though.

The starting eleven is sprinkled with talent from front to back and Croatia have a team capable of surprising if at their best. The midfield will look to stifle the opposition by passing them to death, although Croatia perhaps need to find a slightly better cutting edge to their play having scored 15 goals in 10 World Cup Qualifiers.

The 1994 Nigerian squad that participated in the World Cup in the United States have been held up on a pedestal over the years. That is so much so that Nigeria have been commissioned with a ‘retro’ shirt for the World Cup Finals this time around as they look to surpass their best record of a Last 16 appearance on the world stage.

That is not going to be easy for Nigeria as they have been placed in a tough looking Group D and with the potential of facing France in the Last 16 if they do not top the section. However they at least go into the tournament without the dramas of past years where Nigerian players have been upset by the bonus schemes or late payments made by their Football Association. Even through those trials Nigeria have made it through their Group at the World Cup Finals in 3 of their 5 previous appearances including in 2014.

Nigeria have not won any of their last 4 international friendly games and have been beaten in 3 of those which is not the kind of momentum any team wants to have ahead of the opening World Cup game. However they had not won any of 6 international friendlies prior to the 2014 World Cup and still managed to edge out of their Group along with Argentina. Nigeria have won just 1 of their last 12 World Cup Finals games which is a surprisingly poor run.

Carl Ikeme misses the World Cup as he battles leukaemia, and that means Nigeria go with an inexperienced goalkeeper in the tournament. There will be a number of players recognisable to fans of the English Premier League playing for Nigeria at this tournament, but much of their success could depend on manager Gernot Rohr getting his system correct.

The preparation for the World Cup Finals has not been ideal for Croatia who have seen a long trial involving Zdravko Mamic come to an end this past couple of weeks, although one that has dragged the reputations of the likes of Dejan Lovren and Luka Modric through the mud. The hope for the fans is that Croatia can maintain their composure amidst the fire and not allow age old tensions to prevent them producing their best in Russia.

Two years ago the fans made it very clear how disappointed they felt when causing a disruption in Croatia’s Euro 2016 Group game against the Czech Republic and there have to be some fears of similar scenes at the World Cup.

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One nation who can sympathise with off field dramas affecting preparations is Nigeria, but this current crop of players have perhaps come in with the most serene preparations ever. Usually there are big debates at this time whether Nigeria will even turn up to play that involves not being paid their bonuses in time, but this year that has all been settled months before the tournament.

The friendly results have not really been that positive for Nigeria over the last few months, but they weren’t in great nick four years ago and managed to come out of their World Cup Group and reach the Last 16 for the third time in five World Cup appearances. Doing that again would be a big achievement for Nigeria, but losing the opening game would put them behind the black ball immediately.

On paper you would think Croatia are going to be too good for Nigeria, but they have a poor recent World Cup record and the off field issues can’t be ignored easily. I would still expect Croatia to dominate the ball with their midfield looking very strong, but Nigeria have the pace to hurt them on the counter attack and I do think the latter can pose problems for them.

The goalkeeping situation is a concern for Nigeria so it is hard to see Croatia failing to score in this one, but the African team can also play their part.

With the pace in the forward areas I expect Nigeria will give Croatia something to think about too and backing the two teams to both score at odds against looks the play.

Prediction: Over 2,5 goals @2.20 in

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