Eagles Suffer Tame Defeat to Croatia on Opening Night
And so, to a false start. After the preparations, the publicity, and the planning, came the performance. And it’s rather sugar-coating it to say the performance was underwhelming. A timid display, resulting in defeat, and now means Nigeria have to just about win their other two games to go through to the next round.
The start from both sides was cagey, to say the least, Croatia’s gameplay of seeking their wide-men and delivering crosses to their forwards not coming off, while Nigeria’s plan to sit back and break bore little fruition. The Super Eagles had developed of starting slowly in games, with below-par first halves, and here there was little difference, most of possession was with the Croatians, as with the attempts on goal, Ivan Rakitic firing a shot over from range, while Andrej Kramaric shot wide of Francis Uzoho’s goal.
Another bad habit we’d developed was our susceptibility from set-pieces, as shown in our pre-tournament friendlies, and that ugly trait reared its head midway through the first half, a Croatian corner made its way to the far post unchallenged, and Kramaric’s attempt went in off Oghenekaro Etebo. Now Nigeria had to come out of their shell, and ask the more pertinent questions. They didn’t, a few moments of putting the opposition defence in mild discomfort aside, the first half petered out with Croatia a goal up.
The expectation was that Gernot Rohr’s team would fly out of the blocks after the interval, and it looked that way for a bit, a few throws in dangerous and a succession of corners had Croatia on the back foot. But Danijel Subasic wouldn’t be troubled in the Croat goal, and eventually our period of dominance faded. Croatia got a foothold again, and only the combination of a bad miss by Ante Rebic and the offside flag denied them a second.
But that second did come, as, with 20 minutes left, William Troost-Ekong hauled Mario Mandzukic in the penalty area, and Croatian skipper Luka Modric was with ice in his veins as he stepped up, coolly sending Uzoho the wrong way. Then on came Kelechi Iheanacho, as Rohr sought a feat of escapology, but the game was up, even with 20 minutes to go, the game was up. Iheanacho would drag a shot wide, as would Victor Moses, but Nigeria never really threatened, and, but for a tame Mateo Kovacic finish, would have gone further behind.
Little matter, though, as the final whistle soon went, confirming Nigeria’s status as the side propping up Group D after the first round of games. Qualification is still very much achievable, but it’s an uphill task from here on.