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World Cup 2018

Group D: Croatia oozes savvy, but spare a thought for Argentina’s Messi

A Nigerian supporter with his face painted in the national colours is pictured in the crowd during the International friendly football match between England and Nigeria at Wembley stadium in London on June 2, 2018.
A Nigerian supporter with his face painted in the national colours is pictured in the crowd during the International friendly football match between England and Nigeria at Wembley stadium in London on June 2, 2018. Ian KINGTON / AFP

Croatia oozed savvy on Saturday night to beat a willing but limited Nigeria side at the Kaliningrad Stadium. An own goal in the first half and a Luka Modric penalty separated the two sides on the scoresheet.

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But while Croatia offered an enduring menace courtesy of Modric’s promptings and Mario Mandzukic’s muscular directness, Nigeria could only counter with pretty patterns ushered into Croatian constructed cul-de-sacs.

Zlatko Dalic’s men controlled the encounter with the discrete verve of seasoned campaigners.

“Nobody said playing against Croatia was going to be easy,” said Nigeria defender Leon Balogun. “We faced a high quality, experienced team. They were very composed with the ball and they were waiting for our mistakes. It was tough.”

Nigeria went behind when Andrej Karamic’s header hit Oghenekaro Etebo and tricked into the net past Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho.

While the own goal opener was misfortune, the second was self-inflicted. William Ekong clambered over Mandzukic at a corner, the forward fell to the ground and referee Sandro Ricci pointed to the penalty spot.

Modric sent Uzoho the wrong way. With the Africans not having mustered a shot on target in the previous hour, there was little chance of a recovery. Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic knew the contest was: he left his position in the technical area to sit with his assistants in the dug-out.

“Of course we were vigilant,” said Croatia defender Dejan Lovren; “You look back at some of the early games in the World Cup and some of the shocks have come in the last five minutes. So we knew that we could not relax at any point. But we know how to play against teams when we’re in this position.”

Croatia and Argentina were tipped as the sides most likely to advance from the group. While Croatia’s performance vindicated such analysis, Argentina were flaky. Having taken the lead in their game against World Cup debutants Iceland, the 2014 beaten finalists conceded an equaliser and then seemed nonplussed as to how to outwit yeoman obduracy.

Not even skipper Lionel Messi could save them. Hannes Thor Halldorsson parried away his 64th minute penalty. And Messi’s subsequent efforts to atone for his lack of precision were increasingly wayward as the clock ticked down.

At the final whistle, as the South Americans trudged off, the Scandanavians celebrated their first point at a World Cup.

More heroics against Nigeria on Friday in Volgograd and their travels could turn into something of saga.

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