Two goals in either half, built from corner kicks, gave Croatia a 2-0 win over Nigeria on Saturday night at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
An own goal from Oghenekaro Etebo in the first half was added to by a penalty by Luka Modric in the second. Nigeria never really created clear-cut scoring chances throughout the encounter.
Nigeria kicked off through Mikel Obi and Dejan Lovren gave away the first immediately, felling Odion Ighalo. After that action, it was a steady start from both teams getting on the ball and trying to instigate attacks.
Ante Rebic drove past Abdullahi Shehu on 13 minutes and exchanged passes with Mario Mandzukic but Ivan Perisic drove his shot over the bar.
Andrej Kramaric found some room and shot, but again it was wide. The Croatians had more of the ball with Alex Iwobi deprived of the ball and Mikel Obi, though trying his best, but not with enough legs to get around Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
The Eagles won their first corner kick in the 22nd minute and Oghenekaro Etebo’s shot went very wide. Gernot Rohr must have been concerned on 23 minutes when Leon Balogun went down in the Croatia box. Balogun insinuated he had been caught by Domagoj Vida’s elbow. He needed treatment off the pitch for a bleeding nose.
The first yellow card of the match was shown to Rakitic in the 30th minute as he caught Moses late on the half-way line.
Balogun charged a Rebic shot for a corner kick in the 32nd minute. Modric took it, it was flicked on by Rebic and headed by Mandzukic but Etebo’s standing left foot diverted the ball past Francis Uzoho for the opening goal.
Iwobi then had a scoring chance on half time but his ball was well blocked by Dejan Lovren. Two minutes was added on before referee Sandro Ricci blew off the first stanza. Croatia had 55% of possession in that first half.
The second half started with Balogun almost getting Nigeria back on even terms but his header was diverted for another corner. The Eagles had three corner kicks in quick succession. Rakitic then shot over from almost 40 yards as the Croats started getting on the ball.
Melee then ensued in the Croatian box with Odion Ighalo remonstrating with the referee when he was called for a foul on Ivan Strinic. The Eagles mounted pressure as they sought an equaliser.
Rebic could have given the Croats a second goal on 55 minutes but though he blasted wide, he had also been flagged offside. Ighalo got his header on target in the 59th minute – the Eagles’ first attempt on target. Croatia then pulled out Kramaric and sent on Marcelo Brozovic on 60 minutes as Zlatko Dalic added more energy and steel in the midfield.
Ahmed Musa came on for Iwobi, who had been largely ineffectual, in the 62nd minute. Ekong then conceded a corner from a Modric free-kick as the tempo of the game dropped. Mandzukic directed his header very wide.
Ekong was caught grappling with Mandzukic on 70 minutes and the referee awarded a penalty for the foul with the Nigerian defender shown a yellow card.
Modric sent Uzoho the wrong way to give Croatia a two-goal advantage with 20 minutes left on the clock. That made it two goals conceded from set pieces by the Eagles.
Iheanacho got a shooting chance in the Croatian box in the 77th but he dragged his effort off target. Rebic went off for Mateo Kovacic on 78 minutes. Uzoho had to parry away a Perisic cross as the Nigerians started leaving gaps in front of their defensive line.
Iheanacho showed strength to hold off Lovren and teed up Musa, who collided with Strinic, who got the ball for Croatia. Strinic needed some treatment and both players had to leave the pitch. Balogun tried to divert a pass towards goal with his head but it was comfortable for Danijel Subasic, in goal for Croatia.
Etebo’s last shot was high, wide and very ambitious with three minutes left on the clock. Strinic again blocked another half chance for the Eagles by Moses. Uzoho saved from Kovacic in added time.
Croatia have now taken the early lead in Group D with Nigeria now having a mountain to climb as they take on Iceland on Friday.