Cameroon disappoint in Africa’s WC Opener
Posted: 14 June 2014 Time: 11:10
Africa’s World Cup began with a whimper in Natal as they were defeated 1-0 by Mexico.
As an isolated result, it’s not terrible, but as they trudged off the pitch, the Indomitable Lions knew that their continued existence in the tournament was hanging by a thread.
Teams can get away with losing one match in the group stage. At the 2010 World Cup, for example, exactly half of the teams in the Last 16 had lost a match in the first series of the tournament.
With the hosts and Croatia lying in wait, the chances of Cameroon picking up two wins, or even a win and a draw (which was enough for Slovakia, South Korea, Mexico and Ghana to advance four years ago) looks highly unlikely.
Partly, this is because of circumstances. While other groups in this competition have received the ‘Group of Death’ tag, Group A has not been considered particularly taxing. I struggle to see why this is.
Mexico and Croatia both have weaknesses, but the Central Americans have a better record of escaping the group stage than the likes of Argentina, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain over the last five tournaments, while the Europeans can boast a number of players plying their trade at major club sides in top leagues (not to mention two Champions League winners).
With Brazil almost a guarantee to take one of the two places, and expected to beat the other three, Cameroon, Mexico and Croatia have been left to scrap it out amongst themselves.
Having lost to Mexico, and with Brazil still to come in the national capital, Cameroon would need something miraculous to avoid accruing two defeats and make it out of the group stage alive. It was never going to be an easy task and my pre-tournament predictions now, with the precious benefit of hindsight, appear overly optimistic.
The second justification for negativity surrounding Cameroon’s summer comes from their performance.
Volker Finke deserves great credit for raising the Indomitable Lions from the doldrums. It’s easy to forget that since the last World Cup they failed to qualify for two Cup of Nations tournaments, a first in over 30 years. They were that bad.
Admittedly, they had some help in the group stage of CAF’s World Cup Qualification Programme, but Finke still managed to navigate (convincingly in the end) a play-off double-header against Tunisia and, most importantly, imbued the side with some optimism and menace ahead of the trip to Brazil.
It was baffling, therefore, how quickly his good work was undone in the opening game. A 1-0 defeat flattered Cameroon.
Had the officials not called a few decisions incorrectly in the first half, Mexico could have enjoyed a much more convincing scoreline. While shots were almost equal between the two sides, El Tri enjoyed almost 60% of the possession.
Miguel Herrera’s side were eminently beatable though, as evidenced on the occasions when Cameroon managed to instil doubt among the opposition defence at set pieces and the good chances enjoyed by Samuel Eto’o and Benjamin Moukandjo, among others.
The coaches of African nations making things difficult for themselves may well be becoming a theme of the 2014 World Cup.
Stephen Keshi baffled with his selected squad and appears to have, perversely, reduced his options rather than given himself options heading into the competition.
Finke has chosen a well-balanced squad, but the decision to start Cedric Djeugoue at right-back was hard to rationalise and backfired badly.
The 21-year-old only had a handful of caps to his name before the World Cup and as recently as 2012 was playing with Foullah Edifice in the Chad Premier League.
Was he really a better option than Stephane Mbia or Allan Nyom? It seems like Finke was asking the same question at halftime as he hauled off Djeugoue, ending the defender’s torture at the hands of Andres Guardado and Miguel Layun.
The inclusion of Djeugoue, and the uncertainty that such an inexperienced player brought to the backline, meant that Benjamin Moukandjo, the player directly ahead of him, was forced into a largely defensive, reactionary role.
With Moukandjo pinned back to protect Djeugoue, Cameroon lacked one of their key offensive weapons and a player who can be an effective ‘out ball’ option to relieve pressure. In the latter stages, with the more stable Dany Nounkeu behind him, Moukandjo had two great chances to level the scores.
It was very much a case of ‘what might have been’ had Finke decided to start Nyom, Mbia or even Nounkeu from the off at right-back.
The situation on that flank meant that Finke’s decision to start Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back went largely unrewarded, despite, in principle, being an encouraging move.
‘Disco Benny’ has his detractors, those who thing he doesn’t concentrate, those who think he takes too many risks, those who think he is too casual—all fair observations—but he was arguably Cameroon’s best player on the day. He created two fairly clear cut chances, both from crosses, and one after a neat run down the left side.
Had Moukandjo been an option wide on the right-hand side, then Assou-Ekotto would have had a clear, designated recipient for the long, cross-field, raking balls he loves to play. This reality, or even just this threat, would surely have compromised Layun’s rampaging runs and eased the pressure on Cameroon.
Similarly, Finke’s decisions to wait so long to make a positive second half change (Pierre Webo only replaced Alex Song in the 79th minute) and to ignore Vincent Aboubakar were hard to understand.
The manager’s reputation certainly took a hit during that opening game, which is a shame considering the excellent work he has done to make Cameroon believe again after the anguish of the last four years.
The Indomitable Lions will pick themselves up, dust themselves off and, hopefully, learn from their mistakes for their second game, against Croatia on Wednesday evening. Failure to do this and, for the second World Cup in a row, Samuel Eto’o and Co. will be the first team eliminated.