When the draws for the World Cup were made last year, a lot of pundits automatically categorized Group D as the “Group of Death” due to the quality and caliber of the teams involved.
After the first round of games, it looks like the Vatreni of Croatia are the only team in the group equipped to do the business. Argentina is still as hapless as ever and Iceland has lost none of the resolute defending and iron-will that saw them impress at Euro 2016.
That leaves the Super Eagles of Nigeria, and from what has been seen of the team, it will take a miracle of epic proportions for them to survive the “Group of Death”.
Not since the golden generation delivered that oh-so-great experience at France ‘98 has a Croatian team looked as equipped for the task as this current set. However, the opposite applies to Nigeria as this current team is a far cry from the dazzling Eagles that thrilled the world at USA ’94.
When the former manager Ante Cacic was sacked after the Vatreni could only finish second behind Iceland in World Cup qualifying, Dalic's appointment did not elicit much in the form of a warm welcome by fans and the media.
After all, his coaching career had not exactly been the most eye catching. With stints in Albania and the UAE prominent on his managerial CV.
However, he has gelled the team better than his predecessor and looks like he has the ability to get the many good parts of the team to function as a cohesive unit.
Against Nigeria, he opted against starting Milan Badelj (ostensibly the most defensive midfielder in the 23-man squad).
Instead he played only captain Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in midfield, he also fielded a very attacking quartet of Mario Mandzukic, Ante Rebic, Andrej Kramaric and Ivan Perisic.
Dalic had correctly noted the frailties in the Nigerian side (a lack of creativity in the midfield and John Mikel Obi’s inability to carry the ball forward from midfield a la Modric) and used his forward men to press the spaces in the middle and stretch the game constantly.
This tactic frustrated the Nigerians as there was little or no time to construct coherent passing sequences due to the constant presence of the Croats.
The Nigerian manager; Rohr tried to counter this by bringing in Ahmed Musa to replace the ineffective Alex Iwobi, and offer pace down both flanks. However, the Croatians nullified it perfectly.
A casual observer of the game between Croatia and Nigeria would have been hard-pressed to identify precisely what the Nigerian pattern of play or formation was.
What looked like a 4-3-3 formation with Mikel Obi the deep-lying playmaker and orchestrator of the midfield three later became a hot mess of confusion as Oghenekaro Etebo who was supposed to be the box-to-box carrier kept running into cul-de-sacs.
The lack of creativity or forward momentum from the midfield meant that the wingers; Iwobi and Victor Moses had to drop back into midfield to collect the ball, which left striker Odion Ighalo in a wilderness against the physically imposing Croatian central-defense of Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida.
Too many times there were two or three Nigerian players within a few feet of each other, while only Ighalo and at times Moses made themselves available to receive the ball in a forward-facing position.
Mikel-Obi was very disappointing in his use of the ball and was unable to pick a pass despite making a lot of intelligent movement in-between the lines. If the team is to escape the “Group of Death”, something has to change.
Fullbacks have become a very important part of the modern game; in a defensive and attacking sense. That is why at club level, huge amounts of money are being spent to recruit the very best to be able to compete for the big trophies.
Croatia started with Europa League winning right-back Sime Vrsaljko (Atletico Madrid) and new AC Milan recruit Ivan Strinic at left back. The Nigerians had Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm) and Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor) as left and right backs respectively.
The quality of the Croats shone through as Vrsaljko alongside Rebic and Kramaric kept Idowu pinned back and focused solely on defending.
With Iwobi dropping into the midfield to help out and look to create something, this meant that the left flank for the Super Eagles was non-existent as an attacking threat.
Croatia’s overload on its left-hand side also worked a treat as Perisic and Strinic combined well to ensure that Moses was constantly isolated on the right and that Shehu was focused solely on defending.
This overload coupled with the ball keeping qualities of midfielders Modric and Rakitic meant that Dalic’s team were always on the front foot and even though the goals were an own goal and a penalty, they were comfortable all through.
All said and done, the Croats were good value for their win as they did not have to extend themselves too much or get out of first gear due to the disorganized nature of their Nigerian opponents. The Super Eagles will need a sea change in attitude, tactics, and application if it’s to qualify for the next round.
Croatia on the other hand, reinforced the perception about the team as one of the tournament’s dark horses. They should not be under-estimated.Published 17 Jun 2018, 17:43 IST