World Cup Group D: Do not adjust your picture; it's Croatia v Nigeria
The stage is set. The performers are already camped in Russia. Fans can wait no longer. Supporters of Croatia and Nigeria are on edge. They must wait for seven other matches to unfold before seeing their sides make their Russia 2018 debuts. They’ll soon find out whether it was worth the wait.
This Saturday, the 35,000-capacity Kaliningrad Stadium will host two countries who are no strangers to FIFA’s elite tournament. If they both play to their strengths, at least one should go through. The result in this one is not that significant.
The Nigeria home kit has been a bubbling topic in the media since Nike decided to pour their creative spirit into producing a shirt for their African customers. Admittedly, it's received more likes than dislikes. The Croats have traditionally played in a red chequered shirt. So don’t expect the game to be easy on the eye if both nations are allowed to don primary colours.
FIFA Ranking: 20th
The Blazers have only lit the World Cup afire once. That was on their World Cup debut as an independent nation. The occasion was France 1998. Undaunted by the fact they were making their first appearance, Croatia bamboozled everyone to reach the semi-final, beating Germany in athe quarterfinal. It took a match-of-his-life performance from France's Lillian Thuram to stop the Croats. Nevertheless, they beat the Netherlands to bronze.
Croatia has never surmounted that high bar in its three successive World Cup showings. They haven’t even gone beyond the group stage since 1998. Russia presents another opportunity. To get here, they took their usual route through the playoffs.
A new gaffer was brought hired in October. Ante Cacic made way for Zlatko Dalic. The new job has gone smoothly until now. Dalic must guide his team beyond the group stage for the first time in 20 years to really impress, though.
With seasoned professionals such as Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic, things look good on paper. You can, however, crumble that paper and toss it into the waste-bin if they can’t outperform their West African counterparts. The good news is: Croatia has a fully fit squad.
FIFA Ranking: 48th
Obviously, the Super Eagles are underdogs coming into this game. Lately, the Nigerians have not shown the flair and tactical compactness they depicted to become the first African side through the door to Russia. Still, Gernot Rohr has a good side that should cnot be underrated.
After five World Cup outings, the Super Eagles are yet to fly beyond the Round of 16. It's a long shot this time, too. They’ve failed to make it past their group in their last three campaigns. And that was with far more talent.
The Nigerian football governing body has splashed the cash to get the best out of this crop of Eagles. Bonuses have been paid even before games. The best training facilities are being used. Plus we’ve over-flogged the attractiveness of their kit. All that’s left is for Rohr and his wards to step out and deliver a return on the investment. Starting with Croatia. Remember, Iceland and Argentina lie in wait.
In talent and skill, Nigeria falls short of their opponents. Notable names for the Super Eagles are Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Wilfred Ndidi, Odion Ighalo and an ageing Mikel John Obi, all with Premier League links. Bar Moses Simon, who was dropped due to injury, the 2013 AFCON Champions have a full-strength side.
I’ll reiterate; It’ll be wise to put your money on Croatia. They’ve got class and the personnel to ensure that Nigeria comes off this tie empty-handed. Pundits have given them a 55% chance of winning the game
I wouldn’t expect a goal-fest from this match. So a draw will be a wise bet to make. Don’t count on a scoreless stalemate.
I'm not going to take my own advice, though, instead banking on a low-scoring win for the Super Eagles. What can I say? I'm Nigerian.