Croatia sit atop what has widely been dubbed the 2018 World Cup’s “group of death,” thanks to a 2-0 victory over Nigeria in the two sides’ Group D opener in Kaliningrad, Russia, on Saturday.
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Mario Mandzukic was an 86-minute-long Nigerian nightmare, causing an own goal in the first half and winning a penalty kick for Vatreni (the Blazers) in the second.
With both sides tabbed as dark horse candidates to make a deep run this summer, only Croatia lived up to the hype and looked genuine knockout-round hopefuls. Nigeria were defensively disciplined as throughout their qualifying campaign, but Croatia frustrated the Super Eagles and offered little time or space to threaten on the counter-attack, while Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic dictated every action for Croatia.
The game’s first chance fell to Ivan Perisic, who fired just over the crossbar from 20 yards out in the 14th minute. Ante Rebic found the Inter Milan man with a simple lay-off into a bit of space just outside the box, but his powerful strike sailed just high and failed to test 19-year-old goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.
Mandzukic’s fingerprints were all over the sequence of events that resulted in the game’s opening goal. It was his chested lay-off that found Ante Rebic for a deflected strike from distance, and the ensuing corner kick. Modric sent the ball into the box, Mandzukic only managed to redirect it further across the face of goal for Oghenekaro Etebo to knock it into his own goal.
Following a lethargic and cagey first 25 minutes following halftime, Croatia made it 2-0 through Modric in the 71st minute, converting from the penalty spot after Mandzukic was wrestled to the ground on a corner kick. Modric went left, Uzoho went (to his own) left, and the lead was doubled.
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Up next for Croatia is a clash with group favorites Argentina on Thursday, followed by Nigeria versus Iceland on Friday.