By Olawale Alabi/Stanley Nwanosike/Uwumarogie Peter/Martins Abochol
Nigeria had an unimpressive start to their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign on Saturday in Kaliningrad with a 0-2 loss to Croatia, thereby dropping to the bottom of Group D.
The Super Eagles made a slow start into the game, holding off the charging Croats and making flank runs which yielded no clear-cut advance at goal.
The Croatians were tenacious, with Ivan Perisic’s shot flying over the bar in the 14th minute and Andrej Kramaric’s shot inches wide of the far side upright two minutes later.
The game went a gear up, with the Eagles now pushing them back through flank runs by Alex Iwobi and Victor Moses, which came off good midfield build-ups.
Croatia took the game in hand in the 32nd minute when Kramaric at the far side dived to head down a right flank corner kick.
The ball hit part of Oghenekaro Etebo’s body to roll past goalkeeper Francis Uzoho’s hands into the net for the opening goal.
Nigeria’s fightback was immediate but feeble as Odion Ighalo failed to get the needed service from the flanks and middle, with Croatia just easily stifling their offensive moves.
The Eagles continued with their languid and cautious display, and were not able to threaten the Croatians who were by now more confident and sitting on their lead.
They forced Croatia into giving away a number of free kicks and corner kicks, but the Europeans were the more threatening offensively.
The entry of Ahmed Musa, a 62nd minute substitute for Alex Iwobi brought hopes of something better, but the Croatians had a better luck as a penalty kick advantage widened their lead.
William Ekong’s 70th minute infringement on Mario Mandzukic earned Croatia the penalty kick which Luka Modric scored by sending Uzoho the other way.
It looked all over by then, with the Eagles now disjointed in their moves and the 71st minute entry of Kelechi Iheanacho for Ighalo not making any impact.
Musa and Iheanacho did liven the Eagles’ attacking efforts thereafter, but with team captain Mikel Obi off for Simeon Nwankwo in the 87th minute, the game seemed ended as a contest.
The handful of Nigerian supporters in the stadium’s 31,136 crowd only waited for the four minutes added to wear out as Croatia only threatened thereafter to add to the scoreline.
The result means that Nigeria are at the bottom of their group after Argentina and Iceland had earlier drawn 1-1.
Nigeria will now face Iceland in Volgograd on June 22 in their second match, while Croatia will take on Argentina in the group’s other game.
Meanwhile, former Super Eagles Coach, Christian Chukwu, has urged the team to step-up their game by putting forward the Nigerian fighting spirit.
The Super Eagles suffered a 2 – 0 painful defeat in the hands of Vatreni of Croatia in their first match in Group D at the ongoing World Cup on Saturday.
Chukwu told NAN in Enugu that Nigerians and the Super Eagles should not lose hope yet.
He, however, noted that the team did `not play well especially in the first half of the game.
“We have to concentrate on winning the rest of the matches in the group.
“We must not or never lose hope at this early stage but put up the fighting Nigerian spirit,’’ Chukwu, who was a former Captain of the Super Eagles, said.
According to him, the Super Eagles needed to step-up their games in subsequent matches to make the needed impact as well as get the desired victory.
On the various changes needed to be done in the team, he said that the coach knew the exact places to effect changes in the team before the next match.
NAN reports that the Super Eagles would be playing Iceland’s Strákarnir Okkar (Our Boys) on June 22 (Friday) and later Albiceleste of Argentina on June 26 (Tuesday).
`Iceland and Argentina played a one all draw in an earlier match.
Reacting to the Super Eagles loss, sports fans in Gombe on Saturday attributed the failure of the team to secure their first opening World Cup win since France 1998 to player’s errors.
The fans said this in separate interviews with the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) in Gombe, the state’s capital.
Mr Tijjani Jafar, Special Assistant to Gombe State Chairman, Sport Commission, said players’ errors and set pieces cost the Super Eagles their defeat.
“We performed below average and I tell you the set pieces cost us a lot. The players’ errors were just too much.
“We are out of this tournament I can tell you. The players were used in strange positions. We should have had Kelechi and Musa start this match,” he said.
Mr Halilu Teli, Chairman, Sports Writers’ Association of Nigeria (SWAN) Gombe, said that lack of concentration which snowballed from the friendly matches was responsible for the performance of the Super Eagles.
“Lack of concentration after the first goal had a big psychological effect on the Nigerian players as they lost focus.
“During the friendlies, we complained about the lack of concentrations and chemistry before the World Cup and now it’s happening again.
“The match was okay but there was no striking power for the Super Eagles and the lack of chemistry between the players was a disadvantage that should be worked on.
“They failed to utilise their chances and handed over the midfield to Modric and Rakitic, which was not too good,” he said.
The Chairman advised that the striking and midfield deficiencies be addressed by having more creative attackers and midfielders to do the damage.
Mr Valentine Obi, another football enthusiast, told NAN that he was optimistic that the Super Eagles would qualify despite the loss.
Musa Ibrahim, a die-hard fan of Super Eagles and a sportswear businessman, said he was satisfied with the result and was ready to “sink or float with the Super Eagles”.
According to him, Nigeria’s appearance in Russia is a victory, adding that Nigerians must support the team totally to get good results against Iceland and Argentina.
NAN reports that since the Super Eagles’ win against Spain in France 1998, Nigeria has failed to win their last three opening World Cup games.
In his own reaction, Mr Samuel Zira, Chairman of the Adamawa United Football Club said that the Super Eagles would still spring surprises in their subsequent matches.
Zira made this known on Saturday while reacting to the 0-2 loss to Croatia by Nigeria in the ongoing World Cup in Russia.
He attributed the loss to inexperience on the part of the players.
He, however, hoped that players would be placed in their rightful positions to utilise their strengths.
Zira said the team would have to work hard to reposition itself in the next outing.