Real Madrid schemer Luka Modric has been transformed by crafty Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic

Matt Jones - Editor 13:18 15/06/2018
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Croatia and Nigeria get their World Cup 2018 campaigns under way on Saturday, with both sides knowing victory is crucial with heavyweights Argentina lying in wait in Group D.

Critics will say both teams are vying for second place behind La Albiceleste, a position the Super Eagles occupied behind the might South Americans as they qualified for the knockout stages four years ago in Brazil.

Croatia, meanwhile, will be desperate to make the knockouts for the first time since finishing third on debut in 1998.

Here, we look at some of the key tactical talking points ahead of the encounter.


Real Madrid star Luka Modric is the standout.

UAE football fans might well have a keen eye on this encounter, with former Al Ain coach Zlatko Dalic leading Croatia at this World Cup.

After a trophy-laden three-year spell in charge of the Boss, Dalic was named Croatia chief in October 2017, with one of his boldest moves becoming arguably his greatest feat to date – transforming lynchpin Luka Modric’s role.

The Modric-Ivan Rakitic conundrum had proved a major stumbling block for Dalic’s predecessors, who struggled to harness both stars’ playmaking skills coherently at national team level.

It is a luxury for Croatia to have two of Europe’s most talented creative midfielders at their disposal, but as England managers found to their frustration with Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, being blessed with brilliance in a certain department doesn’t mean instant success is sure to follow.

Dalic made a significant change immediately after taking over – just two days before the deciding group game in the qualifiers against Ukraine on October 9, 2017 – moving Real Madrid magician Modric to the No 10 position, a role he had rarely occupied since his early career.

Rakitic kept his place in one of the two anchor roles in the 4-2-3-1 formation and the move paid off handsomely and immediately.

Both contributed assists for Andrej Kramaric in a 2-0 win, while Modric was on the scoresheet a month later in a 4-1 thrashing of Greece – with a 0-0 draw days later in Piraeus securing passage to Russia. It was just Dalic’s third game in charge. Easy this coaching malarkey, isn’t it Zlatko?


Kenneth Omeruo

Kenneth Omeruo in action against England at Wembley earlier this month.

Coach Gernot Rohr has already seen the Super Eagles’ wings clipped before a ball has even been kicked with the news starting centre-back Leon Balogun is a major doubt for the Croatia game after failing to train with the rest of the Nigeria squad on Thursday.

The Brighton and Hove Albion defender went for a scan with the results as yet unknown.

That means ‘Chelsea’ central defender Kenneth Omeruo is set to partner William Troost-Ekong in the heart of defence.

Chelsea has been styled in quotation marks because Omeruo is billed as a Blues player and is still on the Stamford Bridge club’s books – despite not making a single appearance for the west Londoners since signing from Standard Liege in 2012.

He is one of the myriad young talents hoarded by the club under Roman Abramovich’s ownership, yet whose talent is honed elsewhere – with Omeruo plying his trade on loan over the last five seasons at Ado Den Haag, Middlesbrough and for the last three seasons in Turkey.

His likely withdrawal is a bitter blow for Berlin-born Balogun who missed the 2014 World Cup after breaking his foot on debut three months prior to the tournament, colliding with advertising signs on the side of the pitch in a friendly against Mexico.

Since his return he has been first choice. However, despite the distraction, Rohr will feel he has an able replacement in Omeruo who has won 20 more caps (39) than Balogun despite being four years his junior.

He is also a better passer than the Mainz man, with an 81.2 per cent pass completion rate in 28 games for Kasimpasa this season bettering Balogun’s 75.2 in 14 Bundesliga appearances.

Omeruo’s 7.3 clearances per game is also eye-catching compared to Balogun’s 4.4.


Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic.

Since qualifying for the World Cup, both Dalic and Rohr will be far from roaring with pride at the performances of their sides in games leading up to the tournament.

Vatreni (The Blazers) have been very businesslike under Dalic early on, but were sloppy in defeat to Peru in March and thoroughly outclassed by Brazil, while they needed late goals to edge past fellow World Cup participants Senegal 2-1 in their final warm-up game on June 8.

They have also worryingly kept just two clean sheets in their last 11 games. And while they blossom with guile and steel in attack, they often leave themselves exposed at the back – with Liverpool’s Dejan Lovren hardly a defensive colossus.

Veteran centre-back Vedran Corluka, meanwhile, somehow remains a stalwart at international level.

Rohr will feel that his young squad, boasting plenty of pace and trickery in attack – Oghenekaro Etebo, Kelechi Iheanacho and Alex Iwobi – can create and take chances in this clash.

Croatia do of course have their own star-studded attack, with Ivan Perisic, despite some off-colour performances in recent games, carrying a goal threat and likely to start with the talented young duo of Ante Rebic and Marko Pjaca available from the bench.

Strikers Kramaric and Mario Mandzukic are likely to swap positions in attack, meaning the centre-forward position is either occupied by a robust striker (Mandzukic) or a more flexible attacker (Kramaric).

Although Rohr has flirted with different formations – including a 3-5-2 used in November’s excellent 4-2 win over Argentina – it is clear he will opt for his trusted 4-2-3-1, which is based on defensive resilience and efficient counters.

17 06 2018 managers dalic v rohe

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