Five facts ahead of Nigeria’s World Cup opener with Croatia

The Super Eagles of Nigeria kick off their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign against Croatia in Kaliningrad on Saturday.

Here is a list of things to consider regarding the Super Eagles’ previous five opening group stage games, including the latest opposition courtesy ESPN.

European dominance

Nigeria have faced European opponents in their opening FIFA World Cup group-stage matches twice previously – Bulgaria in 1994 and Spain in 1998.

On both occasions, the Nigerian teams coached by Europeans – Clemens Westerhof and Bora Milutinovic respectively – and emerged victorious. Can that be enough motivation for the present crop of Super Eagles, coached by German manager Gernot Rohr, to maintain that 100-percent record against Croatia?

Winless opening day streak

When Nigeria takes to the field against Croatia in Kaliningrad they will have to fix one wretched record. Not since Sunday Oliseh’s match-winning screamer against Spain in 1998 have the Super Eagles managed to secure an opening day win.

Heartbreak and disappointments have followed in subsequent years, as loses suffered against Argentina (2002 and 2010), and a goalless draw against Iran (2014) left Nigeria winless in their opening group games for two decades, and even more worrying, enduring a goal drought which culminates in an alarming 270 minutes.

Set piece worry

The Super Eagles have looked fragile at the back when defending set pieces in their build-up games, an aspect which the technical crew hopefully identified and worked on in their training camp in Austria recently.

This problem precedes the present team, as Nigeria have conceded four goals in their opening games in the previous five tournaments, three of those from set pieces. Fernando Hierro opened scoring for Spain at the 1998 World Cup directly from a free kick, while Argentina’s victories secured in 2002 and 2010 were courtesy two perfectly buried headers, from Gabriel Batistuta and Gabriel Heinze.

Non-playing captains

If as expected John Obi Mikel leads Nigeria out against Croatia, the 31-year-old midfielder will become only the third starting captain for the Super Eagles and second most capped on-field leader after Vincent Enyeama in their FIFA World Cup opener at the sixth attempt.

Mikel has 85 international caps, while Enyeama was on 91 before the Iran game in 2014. Other opening group-stage captains and caps are Peter Rufai (55), Uche Okechukwu (41), Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha (56), Joseph Yobo (64).

Over the years at the World Cup, it has become a common occurrence for the Eagles to be led out by the vice-captain in their first match, with the captain dropped to the substitute’s bench.

These sequence of events happened in 1994 when Peter Rufai led out the team in place of Stephen Keshi against Bulgaria, Joseph Yobo in place of Nwankwo Kanu against Argentina in 2010, and Enyeama ahead of a benched Yobo against Iran at the last tournament in Brazil.

Familiar date

For a second successive World Cup, Nigeria play their opening group game on June 16. Four years ago in Brazil, the Super Eagles played their first game against Iran in Curitiba, a frustrating game which failed to produce any goals.

Hopefully this time around, a better prepared, more organised and youthful Super Eagles side will experience better fortune against Croatia, on a day which coincides with the birthday of the man saddled with the goal scoring responsibilities, Odion Ighalo.

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