Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Zlatko Dalic got away with one here. With both Argentina and Iceland looming, the Croatian coach went all out to secure a priceless win. But, if anything, his 4-2-4 made achieving that goal more difficult than it needed to be.
Minded to use Luka Modric as a number-10, where he can be crowded out, in recent times, Dalic at least saw sense here by employing his star player deeper. Unfortunately for Croatia fans, however, that didn’t mean room to accommodate the midfield stylings of either Mateo Kovacic or Marcelo Brozovic.
Instead, Dalic surprisingly selected Andrej Kramaric, a striker who failed to make the grade at Leicester City, as his 10. But the Hoffenheim hitman, as one might expect, tended to play on the shoulder along with Mario Mandzukic. The 26-year-old therefore attempted only 17 passes in his hour on the pitch; 10 of which were successful — hardly in-the-hole material.
Croatia, as a result, found cohesive attacking moves hard to come by. With no central passing options, Modric found himself continually forced to attempt quarterback passes over the head of Nigerian right-back Abdullahi Shehu.
A defensive midfielder with his club Bursaspor, Shehu was seen as the answer to Gernot Rohr’s right-back problems. But the 25-year-old looked positionally suspect here throughout. What few chances the broken Croats did create all emanated from their left-hand side, where rotating wingers Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic exacted some damage.
Of course, Shehu’s cause wasn’t helped by the high positioning of Victor Moses, who was central to Nigeria’s equally rudimentary attacking plan. Rohr isn’t the first manager to target Sampdoria’s Ivan Strinic and he won’t be the last. But, although Moses appeared to have the left-back’s number, the quality of the Chelsea man’s final ball was characteristically poor.
With Moses permanently advanced, it was up to Wilfried Ndidi, therefore, to shuttle out and help Shehu; a task he performed with aplomb for the most part. Until, that is, the Premier Division’s top tackler failed to stop a Kramaric cross; resulting in the corner-kick from which Oghenekaro Etebo inadvertently handed Croatia the lead.
That was unfortunate for Etebo, who was arguably this game’s standout performer. Although Croatia enjoyed 55% of the ball, Etebo touched it more than any other player, finishing with a game-high 93% pass completion ratio. But, where Stoke City’s latest signing really shone was with his driving runs on the ball; adding up to another game-high of eight successful dribbles.
Rohr’s selection of Etebo, ahead of the more reserved Ogenyi Onazi, should be seen as a brave move. But, alas, Etebo’s presence could not improve Nigeria’s woeful transitions into attack. The continued selection of John Obi Mikel at number-10, rather than deeper where he can help instigate, looks an odd call.
Odion Ighalo, once of Watford, now of China, cut an isolated figure, touching the ball only 16 times in 73 minutes. Traumatised Hornets fans, who remember how poor Ighalo was after an initial purple patch, may wonder why he gets the nod ahead of Kelechi Iheanacho — who, incidentally, touched the ball seven times in only 17 minutes!
Meanwhile, at the other end, the Super Eagles’ defensive issues only worsened while chasing Croatia’s lead. Shehu’s dodgy positioning coughed up several chances of a left-wing origin, particularly after Perisic took up permanent residence on that side. And it was the Inter man, his cross blocked by a recovering Shehu, who won the corner at which Shehu’s clubmate William Troost-Ekong applied a full-nelson to Mandzukic.
Incredibly, the resultant Modric spot-kick, struck in the 70th minute, was Croatia’s first of just two shots on target. Nonetheless, it sealed the points for Dalic, who escaped punishment for his tactical overexuberance. Argentina are up next: expect to see Kramaric out wide, Modric at 10, and Brozovic — a second-half replacement here — alongside Ivan Rakitic.
As for Nigeria, it’s difficult to see what Rohr can do differently against Iceland. Iheanacho for Ighalo seems an obvious switch, but the nifty poacher is unlikely to compete for the string of long-balls his centre-backs are forced to resort to. One thing is for sure: Etebo has more than earned his start, own goal notwithstanding!
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