Croatia midfielder Luka Modric celebrates scoring on a penalty kick during Saturday’s match against Nigeria. / AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – NO MOBILE PUSH ALERTS/DOWNLOADSOZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images

Croatia 2, Nigeria 0

Group D, Kaliningrad Stadium, Kaliningrad

A match that promised so much delivered so little. Certainly, Croatia won’t mind. The Blazers earned a 2-0 victory against Nigeria, one that puts them in the driver’s seat in Group D.

The Super Eagles’ youth and athleticism were expected to provide some exciting scoring chances. Croatia’s experienced midfield was thought to provide some entertaining possession play. But neither came to the fore Saturday in Kaliningrad. The Blazers struck in the first half on a Nigerian own goal.

Mario Mandzukic’s header caught the back heel of Oghenekaro Etebo and trickled over the goal line.

In the 71st minute, Luka Modric scored on a penalty kick after an awkward play. Nigeria’s William Ekong wrapped up Mandzukic as he went up for a header in the 6-yard box. The referee awarded the Blazers a penalty kick and gave Ekong a yellow card for the foul.

The call, though technically correct, upset Nigeria players and observers. Corner kicks routinely draw rough behavior in the box and players jockey to get their head to the ball. Rarely do they draw fouls, because even the slightest foul earns a penalty kick.

Croatia takes the top spot in the Group D standings and has the inside track toward advancing with the win. Argentina, the group favorite, surprisingly tied with upstart Iceland earlier in the day.

What’s next

Nigeria: vs. Iceland in Volgograd, June 22.

Croatia: vs. Argentina in Nizhny Novgorod, June 21.

Complete World Cup standings and schedule

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In-Game Updates

Yellow card to Croatia’s Brozovic

Nigeria substitute: Nwankwo for Mikel

In the 88th minute.

Croatia substitute: Pjiaca for Mandzukic

In the 86th minute.

Croatia substitute: Kovacic for Rebic

In the 79th minute.

Goal Croatia!

Luka Modric finishes a penalty kick in the 71st minute to take a 2-0 lead.

The tally comes after an unusual call on a Croat corner kick. Nigeria’s William Ekong wrapped up Mario Mandzukic as he went up for a header in the 6-yard box. The referee awarded the Blazers a penalty kick and gave Ekong a yellow card for the foul.

The call, though technically correct, upset Nigeria players and observers. Corner kicks routinely draw rough behavior in the box and players jockey to get their head to the ball. Rarely do they draw fouls, because even the slightest foul earns a penalty kick.

Nigeria substitution: Musa for Iwobi

The Super Eagles are smelling the coffee: they need more offense. So Ahmed Musa (Leicester City) enters in the 64th minute with the aim of pushing the ball faster down the field and being a finisher in and around the box.

Croatia substitute: Brozovic for Kramaric

This match has been devoid of pretty much any action. That’s exactly how Croatia likes it. The Blazers have been able to contain the ball in the midfield and hold possession. That’s dramatically slowed the pace and taken the air of the ball. This substitution follows the same trend. Marcelo Brozović is another box-to-box midfielder that will slow the game down even more.

Halftime update: Croatia 1, Nigeria 0

Well, that wasn’t much of a half.

Outside of a smart goal from Croatia in the 32nd minutes, the Blazers and Nigeria traded jabs, but never landed any as the first 45 minutes expired. Croatia has a single-goal advantage.

The Group D match is crucial after favorite Argentina tied with Iceland earlier in the day. The winner in the match would get three points and vault to the top of the group’s standings. It’d likely secure a pace for the victor in the knockout stage.

Goal Croatia!

Luka Modric sent a beautiful corner into the 6-yard box, that was flicked to the back post where Mario Mandzukic was waiting. He got his head on the ball, but Oghenekaro Etebo’s back leg knocked it in to the net for an own goal in the 32nd minute.

Croatia takes a 1-0 lead.

Yellow card on Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic

In came in the 30th minute. First of the game.

An early chance for Croatia

Gosh, that midfield is good. In the 14th minute, the Blazers worked the ball upfield with no trouble at all, then, with some pretty passing, set up Ivan Perisic for a blast from 20 yards out that just missed high.

It’s going to be a great night for Croatia if it can hold that kind of ball possession in the midfield.

Starting lineups


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Team profiles

Croatia

  • Last World Cup showing: Group stage, 2014.
  • Best finish: Third place, 1998.
  • Notable: Croatia has faced an African nation just once in the World Cup, routing Cameroon, 4-0, four years ago.
  • FIFA world ranking: 20. ELO world ranking: 17.

Nigeria

  • Last World Cup showing: Round of 16, 2014.
  • Best finish: Round of 16, three times (2014, 1998 and 1994).
  • Notable: The Super Eagles have just one win in their last six World Cup games against European opponents.
  • FIFA world ranking: 48. ELO world ranking: 45.

Players to watch

Croatian midfielder Luka Modric (Real Madrid) is a model of consistency and football IQ. Never too fast, never too slow, Croatia will look for him to feed a talented line of forwards. But he must beware of pushing the pace too quickly. Nigeria has the advantage if the match turns into a track meet. Look out for Super Eagles midfielder Victor Moses (Chelsea), who scored three goals in four World Cup qualifiers.

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