(Originally posted in June 2009)
Cameroon may have to play their crucial World Cup qualifier against Gabon without their captain, Rigobert Song, after he sustained a serious shoulder injury in a friendly against Ivory Coast which, Cameroon lost 2-1.
The charity game, in memory of the Ivorians who died in a stadium stampede last March, confirmed the Lion’s inability to set-up offensive play, but the coaches will take comfort in Marcus Mokake’s goal that broke a two match goal drought.
Cameroon started with almost the same eleven that began that came out against Morocco on June 7 2009. The only changes were at the midfield where Stephane Mbia replaced Makoun and new comer Tchago replaced Achille Emana.
The coaches still maintained the 4-2-1-3 system used in Yaounde, but Samuel Eto’o started on the left of the attacking trio, Alo’o Efoulou held the central striking role while Tchedjou played to the right. Enow Eyong of Ajax Amsterdam anchored the holding midfield role for the second time in a row.
At the 8th minute, Rigobert Song was fouled as he charged forward to support his attack-line. He tumbled and injured a shoulder. While Song received treatment on the sidelines, Didier Drogba latched on a through ball in the centre of Cameroon’s defense and struck home the opener on the first true Ivorian attack. Song was later rushed by an ambulance to the hospital and only returned to the stadium in bandages, near the end of the encounter.
This game was played in three halves of 30 minutes each. The first ended with the Ivory Coast leading 1-0. Overall, the Lions played better in in the opening 15 minutes of the second segment. But speedy Ivorian moves still caught the them wanting on the flanks (particularly on the right). Two minutes to the end of this half hour, Romaric Ndri drove a shot from 20-metres that was deflected by Armand Deumi into Kameni’s net. Deumi had replaced the injured Song.
By the third half (of 30 minutes), Souleymanou had taken over between the posts, Eyong was substituted for Seidou Alioum, Djemba Djemba came in for Stephane Mbia, Job was on for Alo’o Efoulou, Emana took over from Tchago, Marcus Mokake in for Tchedjou and Binya replaced Geremi at right back. The Lions were more enterprising and practically dominated this last half hour.
At the 90th minute, Cameroon obtained a free-Kick just outside the Ivorian penalty area. Eto’o (who was by this time team captain) took a beautiful kick that hit the inside of the cross-bar and struck the goal line before popping out. Marcus Mokake was the quickest to the ball and jumped as high as he could to head the ball. It struck the cross bar again, and it was only on his second attempt that the ball went in. The Ivorian seemed gripped by panic during the 4 minutes of additional play time. But the Lions could not equalise.
It was not a memorable performance by Cameroon. The Ivorians were miles ahead in terms of possession and style. But the coaches could build on those last 15 minutes of this confrontation to mould a more conquering Indomitable Lions squad. A number of statements came from the attack line. That, Samuel Eto’o has more influence on Cameroon’s play when he comes from deep; that Eto’o is better when the players around him are also gifted with skill and can change roles with him. It was seen when he swapped with Job, Mokake and Emana in the last half hour of the friendly.
The way things appeared, Job was like Thierry Henri (left of attack), Mokake was like Messi (right of attack), Emana was Iniesta (from midfield). Sadly, there wasn’t a real Xavi. Djemba/Mbia/Makoun would have to fight for that role. Of course Cameroon players are far from the forme of the Barcelona stars, but there were flashes of similarity.
Another lesson from those good minutes is that offensive action begins from behind, particularly through the full-backs. When Binya stepped-in with energy and vigour as right -back, he put pressure on the Ivorian left flank as he steamed forward. Cameroon played better and the goal originated from that side. His predecessor,Geremi, was static. Although Wome (on the left) was better, it would have been useful to see how things would have been had Tottenham’s Assou Ekotto played instead?
Be it Abidal and Alves in Barcelona or Ashley Cole and Bossingwa at Chelsea, the contribution of full-backs in any offensive is immense. It was lacking for Cameroon against Morocco and Ivory Coast and the coaches must take tough decisions.
Meanwhile coordination and liaison between defense and attack remains troublesome given that Cameroon has mainly holding midfielders and practically no wingers. If the game in Ivory Coast were the measuring rod, then I would not be surprised to see Eric Djemba Djemba on the turf in Libreville. He stabilised the team and was more succesful at taking the game forward. He had the same effect during the second half of the game against Togo in March.
The real nut to crack at the back before the Gabon encounter is determining the replacement for Song Bahanag. Armand Deumi, who is very experienced, wasn’t that reassuring at the Houphouet Boigny Stadium. If performance at club level were the only criterion, Sebastian Bassong the Newcastle man, would be the obvious choice. But, he has a slight injury and has not played with the Lions since he joined at the camp in Belgium last May. An option would be to play Stephane Mbia in the centre of defence. A role he has held for club (Rennes) and the U-23 Lions.
However, with the rather conservative approach by Cameroon coaches, it looks likely that Geremi Njitap will be summoned in central defence alongside Nkoulou. He has played there before and has the experience of playing crunch matches for the national team.
Whatever the case, discipline, determination, optimism and lots of sweating is required at the camp in Yaounde. A group of individuals or names does not win a football match. It is a team. A cohesive unit that plays together and focuses on agreed objectives. Victory does not come because one bears the name “Indomitable Lions”. It is the fruit of hard work, forward planning, and organisation. The Lions have 8 days to construct an indomitable team. Can they?