Who? Croatia - Nigeria
Where? Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad
When? June 16, 21:00 (CET local time)
Croatia (Eden Roitfarb)
20 years ago, Croatia shocked the football world by finishing 3rd in their World Cup debut. Suker, Boban, Vlaovic and the rest have simply dazzled their opponents, peaking with a 3-0 victory over European Champions Germany in the 1/4 finals. They were stopped eventually by hosts France, but the achievement was way beyond expectations.
Since then, the Croatians are constantly underachieving in the biggest stage of all: 3 early exits in the group stage, and even a failure to qualify in 2010. That was not due to lack of talent, quite the contrary, but a contributing factor is ongoing internal problems that involve the FA, fans and players altogether. These issues would be covered later throughout the tournament, but now it’s time to talk football.
Croatia’s opening fixture pits them against Nigeria. This would mark the two’s first ever meeting, and the Balkanian’s prepared to this occasion by beating a strong Senegalese side last week. Experienced defender Vedran Ćorluka, has said recently that the players “are tired of being billed as a talented generation which keeps flattering to deceive”. Ćorluka himself played only a small part in Lokomotiv Moscow’s sensational title run in Russia, due to an injury-ridden season. He will certainly hope his other team would succeed similarly on Russian soil, but also to play a bigger part in the process.
Saturday’s venue is the brand-new stadium in Kaliningrad, the western most city to host games this summer. Kaliningrad is an isolated exclave located between Lithuania and Poland, that became a Russian city post World War II. The city would host mostly European teams during the World Cup and that creates an easier journey for fans who wish to avoid Russian mainland. Thus, we can expect the Croatian fans to come in large numbers and generate a massive atmosphere. Sretno!
Nigeria (Yossi Medina)
Back in the 90's, Nigeria was one of the teams that you waited to see their games. They reached the knockout stage twice in 1994 and 1998 with an impressive style of football and nostalgic names like Jay-Jay Okocha, Finidi George and Sunday Oliseh.
Though, this is the past and Nigeria suffered a long era of failures. In the next three World Cups they failed to qualify for the knockouts twice and even missed the World Cup in 2006. In 2014 they reached the round of 16 once again but they did it with poor football, as they managed to win only 1 out of 3 group stage matches.
Although they have been drawn to a tough group, Nigeria still hopes to make another great performance. One of the key moments in their warm-up was in Wembley, while they played against England. They began the game badly with conceding two goals. A few subs and playing in a more defensive style made the scoring mission almost impossible for England and Nigeria could made better attacks.
While most of the top guns of Nigeria are on the front line, the Nigerian defense will have an important role in the Super Eagles mission. Most of the leading defenders in the squad are young, but they have enough experience to help. The main player will be Kenneth Omeruo, who played in Turkey in the last three seasons. Even though he is only 24 years old, five years ago he played all the matches of Nigeria in their way to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title.
It will be a different Nigeria than we used to know. The famous attackers will need their help from the back, which may make the style less attractive. Yet, for Nigeria it's a chance to make it through with a smart style, an important element in such a tournament.