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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Croatia's Zlatko Dalic refuses to change playing style ahead of Argentina clash

Former Al Ain manager shrugs off dour game against 'naive' Nigeria that ended in 2-0 victory for European side

Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic was pleased with his team's win over Nigeria on Saturday. Murad Sezer / Reuters
Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic was pleased with his team's win over Nigeria on Saturday. Murad Sezer / Reuters

Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic has said his side will not change their game when they face Group D favourites Argentina following victory over Nigeria in their World Cup opener on Saturday.

A Luka Modric penalty 20 minutes from time and a first-half own goal sealed victory for a Croatia side brimming with technical ability, and the Super Eagles - who brought the youngest squad to Russia - have now won just one of their last 13 games on football's biggest stage.

It was a dour game in Kaliningrad, but Dalic shrugged off the fact that scoring opportunities of both his team as well as opponents Nigeria resulted from set pieces.

"A win is a win. Corners and penalties are part of football," the former Al Ain manager said. "What is important is that you score. There was luck there but we earned it. We want to be more attacking but we are not going to split hairs about how we scored.

"There's still much work to be done to emerge from the group but these three points are extremely important. We can't let our guard down. Nothing is over. We have to now think of Argentina."

Super Eagles 'naive'

Nigeria manager Gernot Rohr conceded his young team had been "naive".

"We are disappointed but we must recognise Croatia were better tonight and my young players made some mistakes," Rohr said after the game in Russia's European exclave.

With rivals Argentina and Iceland only managing a 1-1 draw earlier on Saturday in Saransk, both sides had a chance to take control of Group D.

Nigeria, knowing they were always likely to struggle for possession against a central one-two of Modric and Ivan Rakitic, were content to sit back and allow Croatia to come to them.

After 10 minutes, Juventus target man Mario Mandzukic teed up Ivan Perisic at the edge of the area only for the Inter Milan forward to blaze over.

Croatia, semi-finalists at France '98, have struggled to live up to the lofty expectations borne of an embarrassment of midfield riches, and meekly lost their World Cup opener 3-1 to hosts Brazil four years ago.

There is a sense of now-or-never for the Balkans nation at this tournament and Modric said his side would lift their game when they meet Lionel Messi's Argentina in their next match.

"It's going to be a very difficult match. They have huge amounts of quality, but this win will really boost our confidence and we are going to up our game."

The last time Croatia won their opening group game was back in 1998, and manager Zlatko Dalic said he was glad the squad had put that unfortunate record behind them.

"We were disciplined and we deserved the win. We fought for this," he said.

Nigeria's average age heading into Russia was a little more than 25 years old and at times the experience gap showed.

Rohr kept faith in 19-year-old keeper Francis Uzoho but the Deportivo stopper's first real action was picking the ball out of the net.

Just after the half-hour mark, Mandzukic, industrious in his hold-up play, chested a Andrej Kramaric cross back to Ante Rebic, whose fizzing shot was blocked. The resulting corner saw Rebic return the favour with a near-post flick on met by a diving Mandzukic.

Oghenekaro Etebo, up until that point one of Nigeria's best performers, was wrong-footed and bundled into his own net.

'All in our hands'

Nigeria responded well, with Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi's shot from a cleared free kick blocked on 45 minutes and his Premier League colleague Victor Moses shooting wide from 30 yards on the stroke of half time.

They had the best of the start of the second period, forcing Croatia to bat away three corners in succession, before Moses again snatched a shot wide of Danjiel Subasic's left upright.

But just as Nigeria showed some signs of life, in the 71st minute William Ekong held down Mandzukic from a cross in the area and referee Sandro Ricci immediately pointed to the spot.

Modric's gilded right foot guided it to Uzoho's right side.

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"We didn't concede a goal from open play, only from set pieces so this is not a question of tactics," Rohr said. "Sometimes we were a little bit naive on set pieces but we will work on it."

Nigeria play Iceland on June 22 in Volgograd and Rohr insisted his team could still make it out of what is a highly competitive group.

"We are only one point behind [Iceland] and all is in our hands so let's be positive. Let them learn from this defeat and try to do better," the former Bordeaux manager said.

Despite fears pre-match, there was no reports of any racist chanting from among the near-capacity crowd in Kaliningrad.