Youthful Nigeria faces experienced Croatia midfield
KALININGRAD, Russia (AP) The youngest team at the World Cup will need to grow up fast.
Nigeria will rely heavily on 31-year-old captain John Obi Mikel to marshal the youngsters when the Super Eagles meet Croatia and its star-packed midfield in Kaliningrad on Saturday night.
The opening Group D match pits midfielder John Obi Mikel and the young lineup against a Croatia team powered by one of the tournament's strongest and most experienced midfields: Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic of Real Madrid, alongside Ivan Rakitic of Barcelona.
"We're a very young team and we have to play without pressure," said Mikel, the former Chelsea midfielder who now plays in China. "We have energy in this team, we want to fight, we're determined to do well and we know we can do well."
Nigeria was the first African nation to qualify for Russia, but the team has sputtered in preseason matches with losses to both England and the Czech Republic.
Croatia, meanwhile, needed a playoff victory over Greece to qualify for the World Cup. After scoring just 15 goals in its qualifying campaign, questions have been raised about Croatia's attack.
Nikola Kalinic, who plays for AC Milan, believes Croatia's strikers can score.
"Problems scoring goals? I would not say there is any issue about it," he said. "We scored four goals against Greece in the playoff game. We are always at our best when we need to be."
Group D is strong with Lionel Messi's Argentina and an Iceland team that is likely to have a well-drilled defense, so Nigeria and Croatia both need a strong showing in their opening match.
"It's important to get something out of this game," said Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho. "Croatia have good players in top teams in the top leagues, but this is another tournament."
Croatia finished third in its inaugural World Cup – in France in 1998 – but has been eliminated at the group stage in 2002, 2006 and four years ago in Brazil.
Nigeria has never advanced beyond the round of 16 in its five World Cup appearances.
Nigeria left back Brian Idowe should feel at home during this World Cup. The defender was born in St. Petersburg and has lived and played in Russia his whole life. He currently plays for Amkar Perm at the club level. Ahmed Musa, the Leicester City forward, played the second half of this season on loan to CSKA Moscow. He also played there before moving to the Premier League.
"So many signs, the team have a real relationship with Russia," said the Super Eagles' German coach Gernot Rohr.
Zlatko Dalic turned around Croatia's qualifying campaign just in time. Now he needs to find a winning formula in Russia.
Dalic was appointed less than a year ago when Croatia was in second place in its World Cup qualifying group and facing a tough match against Ukraine. Croatia won that match 2-0 and then beat Greece 4-1 on aggregate in the playoffs to earn a berth in Russia.
Dalic had been coaching clubs in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia since 2010 when he was plucked from relative obscurity to lead Croatia. Modric called the new coach "phenomenal" as he helped book Croatia's World Cup ticket.
"This first match is very important, it will set the tone for the rest of our tournament," Dalic said.
More AP World Cup coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/WorldCup
Updated June 14, 2018