FIFA World Cup 2018
Nigeria vs Croatia
Kalinigrad Stadium @10:00pm
Odion Ighalo is likely to start for Nigeria on what will be his 29th birthday, while Wilfred Ndidi is expected to be fit, despite concerns over a hamstring injury.
Defender Leon Balogun is a doubt after missing training on Thursday.
Experienced Croatian quartet Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Vedran Corluka and Mario Mandzukic should start.
There is still uncertainly in a number of positions, but Ivan Strinic is tipped to get the nod at left-back
Group D, which also contains Iceland and Argentina, is arguably this year’s ‘group of death’ and this game is crucial for Croatia and Nigeria’s hopes of progressing.
While Nigeria are the lowest-ranked nation in Group D, Iceland are making their World Cup debut while the Africans have only missed one of the last seven World Cups.
The Super Eagles reached the last 16 in 1994, 1998 and 2014, although their group win over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014 was their first victory since France 98.
Croatia finished third that year, when they made their debut as an independent country, but they have failed to reach the knockout stage since, making group exits in 2002, 2006 and 2014.
Real Madrid playmaker Modric, Barcelona midfielder Rakitic and Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic remain key players, while Nigeria have former Chelsea midfielder John Mikel Obi as captain, with Premier League pair Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi also in their squad.
What they are saying:
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr: “I love this group because we know how to rise to the occasion together.
“Nigeria will be ready for Croatia.
Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic: “The most important thing now are those three points. We certainly have very high quality offensive players and we shouldn’t be afraid.
“It’s important that we play well and create opportunities for our attackers.
This will be the first encounter between Croatia and Nigeria.
Croatia’s only previous World Cup game against African opposition saw them beat Cameroon 4-0 in June 2014.
Nigeria have won just one of their last six World Cup matches against European sides (drew one, lost four), beating Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014.
Nigeria have qualified for their sixth World Cup – they have only missed one tournament (2006) since their first participation in 1994.
No African team has taken part in as many World Cups as Nigeria (six, including 2018).
Nigeria have won only one of their last 12 games at the World Cup (drew three, lost eight), against Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2014 (1-0).
Appointed in August 2016, this will be Gernot Rohr’s first World Cup as manager. Nigeria are the fourth African team he has taken charge of after Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso.
On the opening day of the tournament, Nigeria’s squad had an average age of 25 years and 336 days, the youngest of any team in the competition.
Croatia have won only one of their last seven World Cup games (drew two, lost four), against Cameroon in 2014 (4-0).
They have also kept only two clean sheets in their last 11 games.
Croatia have lost their opening group game in each of their last three World Cups, their last two openers coming against Brazil (2006, 2014).
The last four World Cup games involving Croatia have produced five red cards (three for Croatia, two for the opponents).
Ivan Perisic was directly involved in half of Croatia’s goals at the last World Cup (two goals, one assist).
Zlatko Dalic will be experiencing his first major tournament as manager. Named Croatia boss in October 2017, his team beat Ukraine in the final game of regular qualifying before eliminating Greece in the play-offs.
The other matches to be played:
-France vs Australia @ Kazan Arena
-Argentina vs Iceland @ Otkrytie Arena, 04:00pm
-Peru vs Denmark @ Mordovia Arena, 07:00pm