A first half own goal by Oghenekaro Etebo in the 32nd minute and a second half penalty dispatched by Real Madrid maestro Luca Modric in the 71st were enough to put an uninspired Nigerian team to the sword in Kalinigrad yesterday, as Croatia went top of Group D without playing at their best.
The Eagles offered little attacking threat, although Dejan Lovren blocked Alex Iwobiâ€™s shot just before half-time, and Odion Ighalo glanced a Brian Idowu cross straight at goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.
Ighaloâ€™s header from Idowuâ€™s cross, in the 59th minute, was the first of just two efforts on target by the Super Eagles, although Leon Balogun went close to heading in from a Moses corner at the start of the second half.
Victory takes Croatia top of the group, after Iceland held Argentina 1-1 earlier yesterday. Both Modric and Ivan Rakitic were excellent in their passing, and Croatia threatened more as the game became stretched in the second half.
When Croatia did create chances, it was usually their two creative midfielders who were involved. Modricâ€™s fine early cross was guided down by Ivan Perisic for Mandzukic to fire over, while Andrej Kramaricâ€™s header looped just over the crossbar from a Rakitic assist after half-time.
Tactical Analysis (Nigeria)
The Super Eagles put in a flat and disjointed performance which in truth, wasnâ€™t much of a surprise considering the way theyâ€™ve played this year, even in victory over Poland in March.
The responsibility lies with the coaching crew who have, rightly, been applauded after Nigeria blitzed through their qualifying campaign for the World Cup.
However, the Super Eagles last impressive display was a 4-2 friendly victory over Argentina November last year.
A closer look at the Nigerian team suggests the loss to Croatia â€“ just like in friendlies preceding the World Cup – was more of a tactical problem, rather than personnel. By playing two defensive minded midfielders alongside captain Mikel Obi (who has been tasked with playmaking duties further up the pitch even though he has played as a successful defensive midfielder for most of his career), the Eagles have been slow paced, without any urgency in attack.
In a bid to shoehorn Mikel into an attacking position, Alex Iwobi â€“ arguably the most creative player in the team â€“ has been shunted to the wings, where he is less effective. Invariably, the Eagles lone striker Odion Ighalo has more often than not, played in isolation.
If the Nigerian team are to get positive results against Iceland and Argentina, they must be more proactive with at least, an additional attack minded player in the starting lineup.
One of the three substitutes that came on against Croatia – Kelechi Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa or Simeon â€˜Simyâ€™Nwankwo – should be jostling for a starting spot. Wilfred Ndidiâ€™s dynamism in midfield – means he is able to play in tandem with Mikel. The Eagles most experienced player is still invaluable to his team. His calm and know-how are needed, and he can still be a playmaker from a deeper position.