By Olawale Ajimotokan
Nigeria will finally get their long awaited Russia 2018 campaign underway when they face Croatia tonight in Kaliningrad in Group D.
The match will be the first competitive meeting between both sides, who have their task cut out advancing from a tough group that has Argentina and Iceland as other adversaries.
The match, which kicks off at 8 p.m. local time, is crucial for the Nigerians as a victory will be a morale booster.
Nigerian gaffer, Gernot Rohr will hope for a flourishing start in Russia after his charges failed to sparkle in the run to the tournament, with losses to Serbia, England and Czech Republic.
The positive vibe is that the Franco- German, will have the full complement of his playersfrom which to make his selection following the full recovery of midfield anchor, Wilfred Ndidi, and central defender, Leon Balogun.
The creative spark of Alex Iwobi of Arsenal, Victor Moses of Chelsea will be unleashed, while William Trost-Ekong and captain John Mikel Obi are some of the reliable stalwarts to spark Nigeria to life.
On his part, Mikel Obi has said that the youthfulness of the team will be a key factor in the game against Croatia.
He held on to firm belief that the energy of the youthful Nigerian players will work in favour of the team, stressing that the Super Eagles will be dominant in the midfield.
”We know that the team will be playing against a good side. Croatia has experienced players in their midfield and they are very good, but the Super Eagles will keenly contest for the ball. We know the Croatians love to have the ball and play with the ball. That is the same way Nigeria love to play, ” Mikel said.
“We want to have the ball and we know that the youthfulness of the players on our side will be very useful in the game . We want to play well and get a good result that Nigerians back home want for the team.
“Nigerians wants the team to win every game. We know that winning every game is not possible in football, but we will play our game to the best of our strength,” Mikel said.
Croatia will aspire to surpass the achievements of their 1998 World Cup side, which won the bronze medal.
Russia 2018 is Croatia’s fifth World Cup appearance and the side coached by Zlatko Dalic will be on dizzying heights.
Dalic said his charges have to stay true to their style of play, technical perfect possession and take care of Nigeria youngsters.
“I believe in our creativity, which is our driving force, and I am fully concentrated on my team. We respect Nigeria, knowing how dangerous they can be in attacks, especially counterattacks, but remain optimistic. It will be an attractive encounter, and I know we can win it. We are ready”.
“This generation can achieve something big, I know what the people expect from us. We need to present our quality, and the opening win would give us wings. We are focused and we rely on our strengths,” Darlic said.
At 32, Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric is the shining Croatian light of his generation and could well be about to embark on his final World Cup.
Apart from him, the presence of Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic, Juventus striker Mario Mandzukic, Lokomotiv Moscow defender Vedran Corluka and Inter Milan winger Ivan Perisic will give the European side a headstart.
“Playing is not a burden, let’s see what happens after the World Cup,” the 32-year- old Modric said when asked before Saturday’s opener against Nigeria in Kaliningrad if the prospect of a final major tournament for several players was increasing the pressure on Croatia.