A first-half own goal by Nigeria defender Oghenekaro Etebo and a second-half penalty by Luka Modric was enough to see Croatia through to a 2-0 victory in the Group D opener of the World Cup for these teams Saturday in Kaliningrad.
Neither side looked overly impressive, with the youthful Super Eagles failing to seriously threaten on the counterattack while the Vatreni were content to knock the ball around and slow down the game. The strategy worked as Croatia moved atop Group D after group favorites Argentina were held to a 1-1 draw by Iceland earlier Saturday.
Both goals started with Croatia corner kicks, with Andrej Kramaric’s diving header nicking off the right foot of Etebo and inside the left post in the 32nd minute. In the 70th minute, referee Sandro Ricci awarded a rare penalty for a defensive foul on a corner kick, though it was justified as Nigeria defender William Troost-Ekong was draped all over Mandzukic and took him to the turf.
Modric, continuing a banner year which saw him win the Champions League title with Real Madrid last month, stared down Nigeria keeper Francis Uzoho before slotting the penalty into the lower left corner.
Croatia started the brighter of the two sides, with Ivan Perisic blazing over the bar with a curling right-footed shot from 20 minutes and Mandzukic also having a go from distance. When Nigeria found footing to counter, it was often foiled by a lack of touch in the final third and failed to put a shot on frame in the opening half.
Etebo’s fateful error came on a corner taken by Modric that was nodded on by Ante Rebic in the six-yard box before Kramaric made contact. The goal livened up the contest, with Kramaric nearly grabbing a goal for himself but failing to keep his header under the bar on a cross from Ivan Rakitic.
The Super Eagles applied pressure after the interval, starting the second half with a succession of three corners, with Victor Moses’ shot going over the bar the best finish of those set pieces.
If there is a concern for the Vatreni it is the lack of offense in open play which consigned them to qualifying for this tournament via playoff. Croatia did not have a shot on frame in the run of play until second-half stoppage time, and for all of Modric’s string-pulling in the midfield, there was a lack of urgency to put consistent pressure on Nigeria.
That urgency will have to be found for Croatia’s next match since it is against what will be an aggravated Argentina side, while Nigeria will try to maintain its hopes of advancing to the knockout round for the second straight World Cup versus Iceland.