Oghenekaro Etebo’s unfortunate own goal and Luka Modric’s penalty handed Croatia the victory at Kaliningrad to go top of the group.
Zlatko Dalic’s side didn’t need to play exceptionally well to beat the unimaginative Nigerian side.
There was so much riding on the fixture after Argentina and Iceland played out a draw in the opening fixture of the group. On the side, there was the lesser need to show the team was more than a bunch of fashionistas, winning every kit ranking and arriving in Russia in style.
Leon Balogun was a doubt for the match against Croatia but passed a late fitness test to make the starting line-up while Etebo started in the midfield alongside Wilfred Ndidi at the base of the midfield.
The new Stoke City midfielder showed his energetic presence, hassling Modric and Ivan Rakitc to win duels in the midfield. It looked a master stroke in the opening minutes from Gernot Rohr as the Super Eagles battled for assert themselves in the midfield.
Both teams set up similarly in a 4-2-3-1, Zlatko Dalic altered his team’s set up from their pre-Word Cup friendly moving Real Madrid’s Luka Modric from the central attacking midfield role into the double pivot. Modric started alongside Ivan Rakitic at the base of the midfield with Andrej Kramaric playing behind Mario Mandzukic.
The Super Eagles looked assured in the opening minutes calmly passing the ball between themselves in their half. Nigeria barely threatened Croatia’s defence, unable to penetrate Croatia’s numbers behind the ball the team sought to recycle possession in the opening half hour.
Croatia struck in the 32nd minute when Etebo unfortunately deflected Mandzukic diving header into his net. Ante Rebic flicked on Modric’s near post corner kick for Mandzukic to plant a diving header onto. It was rather unlucky for the impressive Etebo who looked crestfallen after the ball rippled the net.
Ighalo sought an immediate response shooting from an acute angle but his shot was blocked. The striker suffered for large stretches of the match without the ball, isolated upfront without support.
Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi flanked the Chanchung Yatai forward on both sides but they were either too wide or too deep for positive interchanges. Iwobi drifted infield a few times to create but couldn’t make a telling impact.
Croatia created the better chances almost doubling their lead through Kramaric’s header that landed on the top of the net.
Rohr’s men could not conjure a response to the Croatia’s goal before heading into the break.
After the break, the Super Eagles looked more purposeful trying to force an entry primarily through Moses but the Chelsea player too often hit the deck claiming he was fouled. Moses got a chance in the 50th minute, he worked an angle for a shot after a low diagonal from Etebo, but his shot dragged wide of Daniel Subasic’s near post.
The hardworking Rebic should have scored from Perisic’s whipped cross into the box but the winger’s volley from close range sailed over the bar.
The disappointing showing of the Super Eagles worsened when William Troost-Ekong tugged down Mandzukic in the area when a corner kick was floated in. Referee Sandro Ricci whistled for a penalty after the Bursaspor defender with his arms all around Mandzukic, pulled the striker to the ground.
Modric stepped up to send teenage goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho the wrong way as Croatia got their second goal. Nigeria couldn’t work up a response till the game ended only going close through substitute striker Kelechi Iheanacho.
The disappointing loss places Nigeria at the bottom of Group D trailing Croatia, Argentina and Iceland. The Super Eagles play Iceland next at Volgograd on 22nd June.