Croatia and Nigeria open their World Cup campaigns on Saturday night in Kaliningrad and Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) shares his best bets.
Croatia v Nigeria | Saturday 16th June 2018, 20:00 | ITV
I have to admit, I’m a tad concerned about where Nigeria’s goals will come from.
The Super Eagles have only scored three in their last six games in all competitions, drawing blanks in that time against relatively middling sides in Morocco, Serbia and the Czech Republic.
There does not appear to be an obvious modern equivalent to your great entertainers of yesteryear like Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha; even if there were, the lack of creativity from deep makes it hard for individuals to flourish.
Yes, Victor Moses helped Chelsea to the title in 2016-17 and true, Alex Iwobi broke into the Arsenal side last year, but both fulfil selfless roles for their clubs, where the task is to stretch play and create space for more technically able players.
The Africans though, have a different setup. They will start two ball-winners in Ogenyi Onazi and Wilfred Ndidi, who are tenacious but not the most convincing in possession, alongside the more advanced John Obi Mikel, who can show some nice touches but might lack the pace to influence play in the final third.
Nigeria will therefore look to Moses and Iwobi to be their main sources of creativity for nippy striker Odion Ighalo and we’re just not sure they’re up to the job.
While the 5/1 on Gernot Rohr’s side to take three points might look good on the face of things, we can’t be tempted.
Croatia to take control
Croatia have one of the greatest playmakers of the 21st century in Luka Modric.
The Real Madrid maestro had looked burdened by extra defensive responsibilities by previous managers such as Ante Cacic, so Zlatko Dalic’s first move was to start him in a number 10 position.
While he has fewer touches in his new role, he has also had a more telling impact in key areas and that proved decisive in Dalic’s first two competitive matches in charge: wins over Ukraine and Greece that secured qualification.
Even if Nigeria’s midfield trio successfully denies space for Modric, which they must drop deep to do, they would invite more simplistic passes from another midfielder, such as box-to-box runner Ivan Rakitic or auxiliary holding midfielder Milan Badelj, into target man Mario Mandzukic.
Rakitic and Mandzukic have both scored in a Champions League final while hardworking winger Ivan Perisic was reportedly a target for Jose Mourinho last summer, such is the pedigree of Croatia’s squad.
Throw in the form of Bundesliga striker Andrej Kramaric, who top-scored for third-place Hoffenheim, plus the Atleti-fied Europa League-winning right-back Sime Vrsaljko and you have a team with real ability.
Now that Dalic has found a system these top players are happy with, there’s no way we’re opposing the Blazers, even if the standard winner prices are a tad short.
The betting angle
Betfred’s 8/5 on a Croatia win to nil holds appeal, given that it would have landed in six of their last 11 competitive games.
For those who fancy a dabble on a goalscorer, the aforementioned Kramaric has scored four in as many international appearances since the manager change and is 11/5 with Betfair to bag anytime.