Weblog: The football punter

Classy Croatia look a cut above Super Eagles

World Cup Group D
ITV, 8pm Saturday

Croatia were among the most impressive teams in the group stage at Euro 2016, topping their section ahead of Spain, and they can make a strong start to the World Cup by beating Nigeria in Kaliningrad.

Group D is intriguing with all four teams fancying their chances of reaching the knockout rounds.

But Croatia need to think about more than a top-two finish if they are serious about going deep into the tournament.

Getting out of the group would be the best effort since reaching the semi-finals in 1998 but a last-16 exit, as was the case at Euro 2016, could be considered below par for a side built around the midfield excellence of Real Madrid's Luka Modric and Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic.

To have a better chance of getting past the round of 16 they need to avoid facing France.

The best way they can achieve that is to play positively and target first place ahead of sectional favourites Argentina.

Croatia's meeting with Argentina in Nizhy Novgorod next Thursday has the potential to be one of the best games of the group stage but it is vital that Zkatko Dalic's side go into it with three points in the bank.

Their performances in qualification were mixed – they finished second to Iceland and had to win a playoff against Greece.

Inconsistency has been a theme in this year's friendlies with Croatia disappointing in a loss to Peru (2-0) but hitting high notes with wins over Mexico (1-0) and Senegal (2-1).

The success over Senegal may be the best pointer for the Nigeria game.

Senegal stand out as one of the best African teams with Liverpool's Sadio Mane the headline act.

They look stronger than Nigeria, whose impressive qualification – they finished above Cameroon and Algeria – may be slightly misleading.

Six months ago Nigeria would have been on plenty of shortlists as value each-way alternatives to the big guns but their stock has fallen with a series of disappointing friendly performances.

After being drawn alongside two European teams, Nigeria set up warm up games against England and the Czech Republic.

They lost both, 2-1 to England at Wembley and 1-0 to the Czechs in Austria.

The match against England was a classic game of two halves with Nigeria outclassed in the first 45 minutes but improving greatly after the break.

However, there were few positives for them to take out of the loss to the Czechs, who had lost  4-0 to Australia five days earlier.

Nigeria have a decent attack with Chelsea's Victor Moses and Arsenal's Alex Iwobi offering support to Odion Ighalo.

But a midfield featuring Jon Obi Mikel and Wilfred Ndidi lacks craft and they are likely to be outmanoeuvred by the technically gifted Croatians.

Defence is another area of Croatian strength with centre-backs Vedran Corluka and Dejan Lovren offering solid protection to Monaco goalkeeper Danijel Subasic.

In contrast, Nigeria look suspect at the back and 19-year-old goalkeeper Francis Uzoho has questions to answer after his howler for Harry Kane's goal at Wembley.

The Super Eagles are a work in progress rather than a team destined to end Africa's long wait for a World Cup winner and they should be heading for a fourth successive defeat against European opposition.


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Match in Focus


Wales v Denmark

Home WinDrawAway Win
Key stats
  • Wales have conceded in four of their last six matches in all competitions
Expert verdict
Denmark stalled Wales’ Nations League progress in the reverse fixture and can go top of the group with victory in Cardiff. Age Hareide’s men sunk the Welsh 2-0 in September courtesy of a Christian Eriksen brace and their resolute rearguard and prolificacy in the final third can see them ease past the hosts again. Wales took maximum points from their two matches with Ireland but have crumbled when hositng Spain in a friendly.