Argentina v Croatia, Thursday 21st June, 19:00
It doesn’t seem as straightforward for Argentina now, does it? Strong favourites to finish top of their qualifying group, an opening draw against Iceland has severely dented confidence. It wasn’t so much the result that knocked them but rather the paucity of performance which cast into stark relief the terrible truth – without Messi there is nothing. Everything is geared toward him – as it should be given his importance – but a conductor needs his players and Messi’s minions can barely pluck a string.
Croatia didn’t soar against the Super Eagles but got their win all the same. In a team of outstanding players such as Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, it was perhaps surprising that their two goals came by way of an own goal and a penalty but it was pressure from set-pieces which engineered these chances for them. Croatia’s quality was obvious if sporadic and they’ll hope that first match was enough to blow away the cobwebs because, whether or not they believed it pre-tournament, having watched Argentina’s opening gambit, they’ll know that the win is there for them, contingent upon shackling Messi.
Even after their performance against Iceland, the market is still unwilling to make Argentina anything but heavy favourites here. This column will be stunned if Croatia don’t put more pressure on Argentina’s defence than Iceland managed. That centre-back pairing is a disaster-in-waiting, the kind of liabilities that Mario Mandzukic dreams about. On the flipside of the coin, many of Argentina’s attackers might feel similarly about Croatia defender, Dejan Lovren. It’s a tough one to call but, given this column’s distaste for money and winning bets, we’re going to laugh in the face of the bookies and back a Croatia win at 31/10 from Bet365.
Iceland to Continue to Surprise on the World Stage
Nigeria v Iceland, Friday 22nd June, 16:00
Having come into this tournament with high hopes, Nigeria largely disappointed in their opening game loss to Croatia. In possession, there was generally too great a gap between midfield and attack and they lacked a creative and cutting edge that might have seen them get something from the match. Poor decision-making and lack of nous told against them but as has been pointed out, theirs is the youngest squad participating in the competition. The issues they have are both on the pitch and on the sideline.
Iceland made their World Cup debut as if the preceding two years had never happened, picking up where they left off from the European Championship in 2016. That is to say they were fearless, disciplined and defensively solid; more importantly, they were worth every penny of their draw. For such a small and inexperienced footballing nation, the levels of confidence they display across the board are astonishing. Never rattled, always assured, they will fancy their chances against a Nigeria side that looked anything but against Croatia.
What’s seldom is supposedly wonderful and, regarding this tie, we’re of a mind to row in behind the bookmakers in their assessment of the outcome. Iceland impressed to a much greater degree than Nigeria in the opening games and everything points to them winning. The price we like for that outcome is 28/17 from 888Sport.