Sports Mole provides predicted XIs, team news and a full match preview for the World Cup Group D clash between Croatia and Nigeria at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
Two teams tipped to battle it out for the runners-up spot in Group D go head to head at the Kaliningrad Stadium in their World Cup opener as Croatia take on Nigeria.
Argentina, who face Iceland in their opener, are the favourites to top the standings, so both teams will be keen to avoid defeat as the battle for second spot is likely to be close and hard-fought.
With world-class talent such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic among their ranks, Croatia have been tipped for a decent run in Russia, but they struggled somewhat during qualifying.
Zlatko Dalic‘s side pipped the Ukraine to second place in their group, finishing three points ahead of them, and two behind table-topping surprise package Iceland.
This forced them to contest a two-legged playoff against Greece, which they won by the comfortable aggregate scoreline of 4-1 thanks to a resounding victory in the first leg.
Since qualifying, the Croats have registered two wins and as many defeats in international friendlies, keeping only one clean sheet during that run and finding the net three times.
These were testing fixtures, all against fellow World Cup qualifiers, and the reverses came against Brazil and Peru, and the wins over Mexico and Senegal.
Those defeats to South American opposition are the only ones of Dalic’s tenure, with the 51-year-old having otherwise won four and drawn one since taking the helm seven matches ago.
Looking further back, Croatia have a good record against teams from outside of the two leading confederations, Europe and South America, having won eight of their last 10 games against such opponents.
Their record at World Cup finals, however, has been shaky in recent tournaments as the Blades have not progressed through the group stage since 1998, when they finished in third place.
The Croats have only ever faced one other African qualifier at the finals, beating Cameroon 4-0 in the group stage of the last World Cup.
Recent form: WDLWLW
The Super Eagles soared during World Cup qualifying, becoming the first African team to book their spot in Russia with a 1-0 victory over Zambia in October.
Nigeria were drawn in a tough qualifying group alongside Algeria and continental champions Cameroon, but that win gave them an unassailable 13-point lead at the top of the table before the campaign was through.
Gernot Rohr‘s team produced pacey, energetic performances throughout qualifying but they have been unable to carry their impressive form over to subsequent international friendlies against higher-calibre opposition.
Since beating Poland in Wroclaw thanks to a Victor Moses penalty, the Nigerians have gone four matches without a win, a run which includes a 2-1 friendly defeat to England at Wembley Stadium.
Chelsea star Moses has relished playing in a more advanced role for his country, having scored 11 times in 34 matches for them so far.
More experienced players like him and captain John Obi Mikel – who has 85 international caps to his name – will be vitally important to Nigeria at the finals, given that Rohr has taken a relatively young squad to Russia.
It is easy to see why Croatia are the favourites. Nigeria have scored just five times in their last eight games and have a poor record at World Cups.
Since France 98, the Super Eagles have won just one of their last 12 matches at the finals.
Recent form: WWLDLL
Modric is expected to play a key role for Croatia in their group opener against Nigeria, operating higher up the pitch than he usually plays for Real Madrid.
This means Rakitic will likely play in a defensive midfield position alongside Marcelo Brozovic.
Right-back Sime Vrsaljko is pushing for a start after sitting out the 2-0 friendly defeat to Brazil at Anfield, while Ivan Strinic could start on the opposite side of defence.
Dalic has a selection headache up front, with Mandzukic in good goalscoring form for his country and Andrej Kramaric impressing in World Cup warm-up matches, but the head coach is likely to select the former due to his experience.
Nigeria, meanwhile, have slight concerns over their inexperienced goalkeeper Francis Uzoho, as the 19-year-old has become their only viable option since Vincent Enyeama‘s retirement and Carl Ikeme‘s leukaemia diagnosis.
Mikel, Moses and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi are expected to be handed key midfield roles for the Super Eagles, providing support for a lone striker, most likely Odion Ighalo.
Ighalo has been preferred to Kelechi Iheanacho in recent fixtures, which suggests that the Leicester City man will likely start on the bench.
Croatia possible starting lineup:
Subasic; Vida, Lovren, Vrsaljko, Strinic; Brozovic, Rakitic; Kramaric, Modric, Perisic; Mandzukic
Nigeria possible starting lineup:
Uzoho; Troost-Ekong, Balogun, Abdullahi, Idowu; Ndidi, Onazi; Iwobi, Mikel, Moses; Ighalo
Head To Head
This will be the first time that Croatia and Nigeria have faced each other.
We say: Croatia 2-0 Nigeria
The form guide suggests that Croatia are going from strength to strength under Dalic, while Nigeria’s good form has petered off in the run-up to the World Cup. There is a gulf in quality between the two squads, with players such as Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic certain to give the Blades the edge over a comparatively inexperienced Nigeria side, and that will prove the difference during a semi-comfortable win for the Croats.