Pace, verve and energy should be synonymous with this Nigeria side, but as they showed in Kaliningrad on Saturday night, they lack bravery. Croatia ran out 2-0 winners; Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and Ivan Perisic are part of the ageing golden generation ready for one last push at a major tournament, but they didn’t need to play anywhere near their best to take the three points.
The fear Nigeria held towards Modric and Rakitic was patently obvious; they built their entire gameplan around stopping them, sacrificing much of their attacking intent. It seemed as though they were aiming for a draw, which is a dangerous and uninspiring approach to take, especially considering Iceland, the perspective Group D whipping boys, had already earned a point against Argentina earlier in the day, showing confidence going forward in the process. La Albiceleste have defensive frailties worth attacking, as Nigeria know having exploited them in a Krasnodar friendly last November, which Croatia don’t necessarily, but their lack of adventure suggests they are heading for one destination at the end of June: Lagos.
As almost every Premier League side found when facing Manchester City last season; going into a game with no aim beyond survival rarely ends well. The best teams will always find a way, and Croatia have long had an issue with the Rakitic/ Modric partnership, which has rarely produced the results it perhaps should over the years. Fully aware of their own Lampard/Gerrard conundrum, the Croats have worked on alternate routes to victory. Their manager, Zlatko Dalic, has recently abandoned the usual three-man midfield, with Milan Badelj of Fiorentina supporting their two main stars, and he went for a 4-4-2 which, in truth, gave little in the way of defensive solidity.
Both Perisic, who played on the right, and Ante Rabic, their left midfielder, are true wingers, more inclined to get forward than tuck inside and keep the shape. Former Leicester City man Andrej Kramaric played off Mandzukic; their route through the Nigeria midfield, a double pivot of Wilfred Ndidi and Etebo Oghenekaro, who scored an own goal before Modric wrapped up the win from the penalty spot, was clear. They had a lot of joy by going on the outside.
It was no surprise to see Ndidi and Etebo stick rigidly to their positions, but one of the most frustrating themes of the Nigeria performance was how deep their captain, John Obi Mikel, played. Premier League fans are used to seeing that from the former Chelsea man, but he is much more influential further up the pitch on the international stage. There may have been minimal space for Modric in particular to run into, but Nigeria penned themselves in. Victor Moses, another with a much greater role in this team than Chelsea’s, and Alex Iwobi, the Arsenal man and the Super Eagles’ chief creator, were completely isolated, while Odion Ighalo, once of Watford, offered no outlet up front.
Perhaps there is an element of Gernot Rohr picking the wrong personnel, but the main issue were with his tactics. Croatia must have sensed they could attack their opponents without much regard for their threat; the game panned out very much like the first half of the friendly against England at Wembley just over two weeks ago. On that occasion, Nigeria couldn’t handle the English movement, but it was bizarre to see them neglect the opportunity to hit Croatia on the counter attack. They just had to bide their time and did so expertly.
It isn’t hard to see what must happen in their next game; more focus on their attack. Iceland are not the best opponents to face, because they will force Nigeria into dictating the play more than Croatia did. Rohr must demand the same concentration and organisation in midfield, but release the shackles on Mikel for him to link defence to attack in order to get the win. Ighalo didn’t do enough on Saturday; Kelechi Iheanacho better combines pace and physique, he started on the bench last time but he would be an obvious change to make.
Everything that was expected of Nigeria did not appear; Croatia found it far too easy. The squad selected by Rohr is one of the best for years, capable of making a big impact for Africa this summer, but all of a sudden, the pressure is on. Iceland specialise in surprises, but their public will demand a victory, ahead of the final game against Argentina which, funnily enough, feels like a better match for Nigeria. If they can beat Iceland, they will undoubtedly fancy a repeat of that victory seven months ago.
Change is needed immediately, though. The way Nigeria approached the Croatia game was full of fear and trepidation and that not the way to play any match at World Cup level. An Iceland side that prides itself on its heart and desire is primed and ready to cause yet another stir next week.
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