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One of the most interesting duels of the first round is scheduled as the icing on the cake that first Saturday of the Tournament definitely is. These two squads have never met before, and it’s going to be one tough premiere showdown for both squads as the potential loser will probably lose all chances of advancing to the next stage. Both teams have grounds to hope for the best, but we’ll see how it’s going to work out.
Croatia vs. Nigeria
Three-Way: 1: Croatia -141; X: +265 Draw; 2: Nigeria +454
Spread -1.5: Croatia +211; Nigeria -263
Total 2.5 goals: Over +128; Under -155
Since taking the No. 3 spot in 1998 World Cup in France, Croatia has established itself as one of the European top soccer countries, missing only one World Cup since then (2010 in South Africa). They did qualify for Russia in qualifications knock-out round by taking down Greece, but this team is known to meet the most positive expectations and further. Their first opponent practices the style of game Croatians can cope with, as their kryptonite present South American teams who they’ll also meet in the group stage (Argentina).
Against Nigeria, their main strength will be the ability to control the middle of the field, and with the likes of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic, that should not be a problem. On offense, they have one of the most underrated strikers in Europe (and World), Mario Mandzukic who is able to score against anyone and in any given moment. Also, Inter’s Ivan Perisic has had a good season in Italy, and he’ll definitely be accounted for when it comes to stepping up when needed. On defense, they are also pretty much set with some veteran players like Vedran Corluka and Domagoj Vida, and confident defenders like Dejan Lovren.
Regarding team’s most recent form, there have been some fluctuations lately, with losses against Peru and Brazil (South American Kryptonite), but they’ve also managed to match a win against Mexico in March.
Nigerian team has probably been thinking about certain déjà vu situations after the group draws for this year’s World Cup. They’ve somehow managed to find themselves in an almost same group like they did in Brazil, four years ago. Argentina is there again, and instead of Bosnia and Herzegovina, they got Croatia, a neighbor team that plays almost the same game as their opponents in Brazil. Still, instead of Iran, this time there is Iceland.
In order to get a positive result against their first opponent, Nigerian team will have to disrupt Croatian midfield that presents their biggest strength, and with their current roster, they just might have the ingredients needed to accomplish that. Along with veteran midfielder John Obi Mikel, Chelsea’s Viktor Moses and Leicester City’s Wilfred Ndidi have enough juice and power to do it. Their defense is probably their weak spot as it’s consisted of relatively young and unproven players like Chelsea’s Kenneth Omeruo and Leon Balogun, but this disadvantage can be overcome by moving the game towards Croatia’s side of the pitch and incorporating attackers Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi to the game plan.
When it comes to squad’s most recent form, the timeline is performing a downfall with three losses in last four games. The most recent victory took place in the month of March against Poland (1:0).
Even though there is a strong case for a potential draw, my money will still go to Croatia’s side as in my opinion, they possess a stronger and more confident 11 players at the moment. Croatians have proved that they know how to position themselves against the style of the game that Nigeria practices, and I don’t think that there will be any problem in securing full prey.
The Pick: Croatia (-141)