KALININGRAD – Croatia beat Nigeria 2-0 on Saturday with an own goal from Oghenekaro Etebo and a penalty from Luka Modric to go top of World Cup Group D, one of the toughest and most unpredictable in the tournament.
Modric’s coolly taken 71st-minute spot-kick gave the scoreline a clear-cut feel, but the fact that Croatia failed to score on their own from open play was a testament to some wayward shooting.
While dominating for long periods, they struggled to penetrate the Nigerian defence and failed repeatedly to find the target with speculative shots from well outside the penalty area.
The first goal came just after the half-hour mark when a Croatian corner from the right was headed across the box and on to striker Mario Mandzukic, whose diving header found its way into the net off Etebo’s foot.
Just three days into the World Cup, the scrappy goal added to what is becoming a pattern, following a Moroccan own goal that handed victory to Iran on Friday and a deflected Paul Pogba effort that earned France a 2-1 win over Australia earlier on Saturday.
Until then, Croatia and Nigeria had appeared evenly balanced, with the African side’s goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa untroubled by powerful but long-range shots from Ivan Perisic and Andrej Kramaric – the first going over the bar and the second finishing wide.
As the game heated up, Kramaric headed onto the roof of the Nigerian net, while at the other end Alex Iwobi had a shot charged down and Victor Moses fired over the bar.
Nigeria started the second half with intent as Leon Balogun headed over, but the first half pattern reasserted itself as Croatia imposed their authority while failing to land shots on target.
Their best chance fell to Ante Rebic, but his well-struck volley zoomed wide of the goal as he ran onto a pass from Perisic.
Croatia again had their opponents to thank for their second goal, after William Troost-Ekong held Mario Mandzukic back in the penalty area by wrapping both arms around him from behind in a tight embrace that would have done credit to an amorous Cossack.
Modric strode up to stroke the ball low into the left-hand corner, giving Ezenwa no chance.
Croatia, who were barely extended by their African opponents, now top Group D after Argentina and Iceland drew 1-1 in Moscow earlier on Saturday.