A first-half own goal from William Etebo and a coolly-taken penalty from Luka Modric secured Croatia all three points against Nigeria on Saturday night, as the Croatians put themselves in the box seat in Group D after the first round of fixtures
Croatia was the first to threaten with 14 minutes gone as Ante Rebic drove away from his man down the left before finding Mario Mandzukic. He dropped the ball off first time for Ivan Perisic on the edge of the box but his fizzing effort narrowly cleared Francis Uzoho’s crossbar.
Zlatko Dalic’s side were in complete control from that point, with Andrej Kramaric the next to threaten as he curled wide from 25 yards.
Just after the half-hour mark, Croatia found the breakthrough, though it came in fortunate circumstances as Mandzukic’s header from a Luka Modric’s corner was deflected into his own net by Etebo at the far post.
They could have doubled that lead just seven minutes later, but Kramaric’s header from a pin-point Ivan Rakitic cross looped onto the roof of the net, rather than nestling in the back of it.
Remarkably, neither side managed a shot on target during the first half, but the Croatians nevertheless led at the break.
Whether smarting from their lackluster first-half showing of having received a rollicking form their manager, Nigeria started much better after the restart, with Victor Moses heavily involved in most of their most promising forays forward.
Leon Balogun saw a header from a Moses corner blocked away before Moses himself dragged an effort into the side-netting after skipping inside Ivan Strinic down the right.
However, Nigeria’s fightback ended almost as quickly as it started as Croatia wrestled back control.
The chances for both sides dried up once again until a moment of madness from William Troost-Ekong handed Croatia a chance to double their lead.
The center-back inexplicably got Mandzukic in some sort of chokehold as they jostled for positions during a corner, with the referee wasting no time in pointing to the spot. Captain Modric took responsibility, sending Uzoho the wrong way as he slotted low into the bottom left corner.
There was little sign of a Nigeria fightback after that, with substitute Mateo Kovacic even going close to a third for Croatia in the dying embers of the game.
The win means that European nations are still to suffer defeat at this year’s World Cup, with seven European sides having taken to the field. Meanwhile, Croatia looks well-positioned ahead of their clash with Argentina on Thursday, with Nigeria facing Iceland a day later.