Eight years on from when Africa came together at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the continent still seems as far away from winning the trophy as they were then. The hosts exited the competition at the group stage; it was down to Ghana to represent, but they fell in the cruelest manner possible in the quarter finals to Uruguay, on penalties. In Russia, Nigeria are attracting a lot of interest, both on and off the pitch. Their new shirt, brought out for the World Cup, has been lauded as one of the smartest for a long time, but it was in November last year when the world really sat up to take notice.
A 4-2 win, in Russia, against Group D opponents Argentina, showed just how dynamic and energetic their young team can be. They are all set to take on La Albiceleste again, as well as debutants Iceland and, on Saturday in Kalilingrad, Croatia.
With Lionel Messi hoping to take his country, who finished as runners up in Brazil four years ago, one step further this year, Argentina are favourites to top the group; this game could be huge for deciding who will finish second and reach the knockout phases. Iceland cannot be written off, having beaten England and given France a scare at Euro 2016, but their lack of experienice and quality should see them fall short. Nigeria have a nucleus of talent that can take them far into the tournament; but beating a team as strong as Croatia, with the plethora of options they have in midfield and attack, is vital for that to happen.
Luka Modric, the Real Madrid star, is their talisman; he is complimented by Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic in the centre of the park. Inter’s Ivan Perisic and Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic supply the firepower. It will be a tough test for Rohr‘s men, but they have shown their ability to take the game to their opponents with great intensity; their win over Argentina relied heavily on their pace on the counter attack. If the likes of Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, who usually operates at the base of a midfield three, can cut the supply line to Mandzukic and look to get the ball to John Obi Mikel, the captain who plays in a more advanced role than he did at Chelsea, Nigeria could cause problems.
Alex Iwobi is very important to the way they play; the Arsenal man may be on the periphery of things at the Emirates Stadium, but having scored twice against Argentina and once in the defeat to England at Wembley at the beginning of June, it is clear he will be the biggest threat for Croatia on Saturday. Victor Moses will add extra pace, while Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho and former Watford striker Odion Ighalo will be fighting to lead the line up front.
Croatia are a team that play to their strength by keeping possession and getting the wide players involved. Rakitic and Modric usually start alongside Milan Badelj, who offers an extra layer of protection in the middle. Nigeria are not in the best of form right now, winless in four since beating Poland 1-0 in March; they struggled to deal with England’s movement between the lines, but after John Ogu came on to replace Ogenyi Onazi at half time, they found a better shape. Iwobi scored almost immediately after half time and then they frustrated Gareth Southgate’s side. Nigeria do not have the same quality as Argentina, or Croatia for that matter, but Yusuf has selected a balanced squad with an identity and a style that can surprise a few people, starting in their first game.
Ahmed Musa, another player known to the Premier League, can come off the bench and stretch the play as the game goes on, but Croatia have been bringing both Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brosovic on as substitutes in their recent friendlies against Brazil and Senegal. Their strength in depth is very impressive, especially for a team not expected to challenge at the business end of the tournament. It could prove decisive in their battle with Nigeria, both in Kalilingrad and for a place in the knockout stages.
Senegal, who lost to Croatia last week, and a Mohamed Salah-inspired Egypt, are also flying the African flag this summer, but Nigeria are looking strong and their squad is developing together. Now is their chance to prove it on the biggest stage.
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