Croatia are top of the FIFA World Cup Group D after one round of games following a 2-0 win over Nigeria.
An own goal from new Stoke City signing Oghenekaro Etebo had the Croats in control at half-time and a Luka Modric penalty in the 71st minute sealed the three points.
Argentina and Iceland played out a 1-1 draw earlier in the day meaning this win leaves Croatia in pole position heading into their second game against Argentina on Thursday.
Group D is being seen as the toughest battle of this year’s tournament with all four teams having a good chance of progressing. After watching Argentina fail to win earlier, both teams knew that this game was a huge opportunity to take control of the group.
The European side started the game in a confident manner and after good work by Ante Rebic on the left, a good chance fell their way. Mario Mandzukic did well to lay it off for Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic to strike from 20 yards, but the ball flew just over with the goalkeeper Francis Uzoho well beaten.
Ex-Leicester City striker Andrej Kramaric was a thorn in Nigeria’s side throughout the first half, but the closest he came was when he smashed just wide from 20 yards with a low strike. The pressure was building on the African side and inevitably, they buckled soon after.
Etebo will be playing Championship football after signing for Stoke for £6m fee, but Potters fans won’t have liked what they saw when the defender gifted Croatia a lead. Modric’s corner was flicked on at the near post by Rebic and with Mandzukic breathing down his throat, the Nigeria centre-back diverted the ball past his own goalkeeper. It was the second World Cup in a row that Croatia’s first goal came from an own goal after Marcelo’s gaffe in the opening game of the 2014 World Cup.
In the second half, chances were few and far behind. Nigeria struggled to break down an organised Croat defence while up the other end, Croatia were settled into their lead. They still found the effort to finish this game off though, albeit thanks to another Nigerian defensive blunder.
William Troost-Ekong lost his head amongst the terrific atmosphere when he obviously pulled Mandzukic to the floor from a corner. It was a really silly mistake to make, but Real Madrid’s Modric was happy to take advantage with a cool penalty.
It was a well-deserved victory for Croatia, but it’s clear to see bigger tests lie ahead when they play against Argentina and Iceland. For Nigeria, improvement will be needed to avoid becoming the group’s whipping boys.