KALININGRAD: On the Day 3 of the mega football tournament, Croatia and Nigeria are gearing up to counter each other in the much-awaited FIFA World Cup 2018. The match will start at 12:30 am on Sunday and to be venued at Kaliningrad Stadium in Russia.
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic is confident he has the perfect mix of youth and experience as his team gear up for their World Cup Group D opener against Nigeria on Saturday.
Croatia have failed to advance past the group stage since their debut as an independent country at the 1998 World Cup in France, where they finished third.
Although drawn in a tough group in Russia with Argentina, Nigeria and Iceland, they believe they have what it takes to make the knockout rounds.
Labelled as the best Croatian squad since the 1998 group, they will once again need to deal with lofty expectations.
"We have a very good set of players who are the driving forces of big clubs and young players, it`s a good mixture of youth and experience," Dalic told a news conference on Friday.
"It is right that expectations are high and we expect from ourselves more than anybody else.
"I hope we will prove all those flattering epithets right and that this generation will get a result with some luck along the way. We are full of self-belief and ready to show some good football."
With Argentina expected to top the group, a defeat on Saturday would probably leave the losers to the brink of elimination, but Croatia insist they will play freely.
"We have our own style, we play a football of possession, we are offensive and we won`t give that up to adapt to Nigeria," Dalic said.
"I believe in our players and I don`t want to limit their creativity. It is our biggest advantage."
The perfect symbol of Croatia`s creativity, midfielder Luka Modric said he was unfazed by the news of his club Real Madrid poaching Julen Lopetegui from the Spanish national team to replace Zinedine Zidane.
"I saw what happened in Spain but I think that this is not related to my national team and right now I`m only focused on my national team," he said.
"If we go through the group stage, then everything is possible."
No news is good news as far as Nigeria are concerned with captain John Obi Mikel happy to report trouble-free preparations ahead of their opening game at the World Cup against Croatia on Saturday.
Nigeria, at the finals for a sixth time, have a long history of botched preparations, late coaching changes and money squabbles which have all contributed to distracted teams arguably falling short of their potential in previous editions.
There has been none of that this time round, though, Obi Mikel was quick to point out to reporters on Friday on the eve of the Group D game at the Kaliningrad Stadium.
"There have not been any issues in the camp. It's been a quiet camp, very disciplined and there is a real unity in the team," Obi Mikel said at the pre-match news conference.
"It's been that way since day one. We feel ready, we have prepared really well and it's a game we want to win to start the tournament well."
Stricter control by German-born coach Gernot Rohr and a much more efficient administration are among the reasons for the change in approach, setting a platform for a strong World Cup challenge.
But Nigeria have to put behind them disappointing results in their warm-up friendlies over the last weeks, losing to both England and the Czech Republic and drawing at home with the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"We were trying out different formations but we are going to switch back to the way we played over the last year coming to this World Cup. If we do exactly what we know we can do, to control the game and be aggressive, we can do well," said Rohr.
"Our players have a lot to prove and this is a very good stage for them but it's also important to keep their emotions in check," he added.
Obi Mikel also touched on the suffocating burden of expectation so often imposed on the team by Nigeria's population of more than 180 million.
"We want to win even more than the fans but we also know you can't win all the time."
Rohr said Nigeria were the outsiders in their group, which also features Argentina and Iceland, but had set themselves the first target of finishing in the top two.
"We are staying humble but we are also ambitious and if we are to get out of this group, we have to make a result against Croatia tomorrow," he said.
Croatia full squad:
Goalkeepers: Lovre Kalinic, Dominik Livakovic, Danijiel Subasic.
Defenders: Duje Caleta-Car, Vedran Corluka, Tin Jedvaj, Dejan Lovren, Josip Pivaric, Ivan Strinic, Domagoj Vida, Sime Vrsaljko.
Midfielders: Milan Badelj, Filip Bradaric, Marcelo Brozovic, Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic.
Forwards: Nikola Kalinic, Andrej Kramaric, Mario Mandzukic, Ivan Perisic, Marko Pjaca, Ante Rebic
Nigeria full squad:
Goalkeepers: Daniel Akpeyi, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Francis Uzoho.
Defenders: Chidozie Awaziem, Leon Balogun, Tyronne Ebuehi, Elderson Echiejile, Bryan Idowu, Kenneth Omeruo, Abdullahi Shehu, William Troost-Ekong.
Midfielders: Oghenekaro Etebo, Victor Moses, Wilfred Ndidi, Joel Obi , Mikel John Obi, John Ogu, Ogenyi Onazi.
Forwards: Odion Ighalo, Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, Simeon Nwankwo