How to tame a Lion...

Question: How do you tame Indomitable Lions of the African jungle?

Answer: Get them to play 3 times with the Panthers of Gabon!

It may sound a bit preposterous for an answer but it tells how and why Cameroon’s national football team lost to Gabon (0-1) in their opening game at the Africa Cup of Nations in Angola.

When both teams met in the qualifiers to this competition on the 5th and 9th of September in Libreville and then Yaounde, the Gabonese were on the high after winning their earlier fixtures against Morocco and Togo. They thought they were equal or better than Cameroon.

They attacked and exposed their back lines to Cameroonian assaults. With a World Cup berth and their reputation at stake, the Lions obliged by beating them twice (2-0 and 2-1).

Having learned his lesson, Alain Giresse, the Panthers’ coach devised a 4-5-1 game-plan that emphasised on blocking spaces when the team did not have possession and bursting out via speedy counter-attacks to surprise the Cameroonian block. They were prepared to suffer, bear the weight of the game with the hope of making vital use of any opportunity that came their way.

The plan worked to perfection.

In all they had 3 shots on target where Cameroon had 1o but they nicked-in the goal in their most glaring face-to-face with Cameroon’s keeper, Idriss Kameni.

Cameroonians can blame 19-year-old Nkoulou for not  tackling properly; many have insulted Rigobert Song for not providing enough cover to prevent Hull City’s Daniel Cousin from taking on Kameni. But let’s face it: had Emana, Webo or Tchoyi taken their chances the story would have been different.

To tame these Lions, Gabon banked on an alert keeper, a vigilant and disciplined defence which respected tactical instructions to the letter.

Nonetheless, Cameroon played well. They enjoyed long spells of possession, especially in the second half which was played in the Gabonese zone.  Yet, like the Ivory Coast (against Burkina Faso) two days earlier, they did not score. Why?  What didn’t work?

Only a few good men…

A few men were below their standard. Given that football is a team effort, the missing links broke the chain of action thereby knocking-off the system. A case in point is the team’s left flank which has been central to their success under Paul Le Guen.  Movement and combination between the leftback (Assou-Ekotto/Bedimo), the left-midfield (Makoun) and left forward (Eto’o) produced goals (2 Makoun, 3 Eto’o) and assists (1 Bedimo, 1 Eto’o 2 Makoun).

On Wednesday, Bedimo struggled, Makoun was missing in action and  Eto’o became a shadowy, peripheral player. Moreover, having played Cameroon twice, the Gabonese were aware that Eto’o (contrary to general opinion) does not play as a central striker with Cameroon.  His central defenders were not drawn to the left as usual, so few spaces were open for the rest of the Lions’ attack-line (particularly Emana, Makoun and Webo).

Glasgow Celtic’s midfielder Landry Ngeumo was also off-pace. He was replaced by Somen Tchoyi at half-time.  Two years ago in Ghana, he was substituted in the same manner in Cameroon’s first game (4-2) defeat to Egypt. He did not return to the team until Le Guen was appointed in July 2009.

Le Guen later withdrew Webo  who had run hard but missed two glorious scoring opportunities. The much criticised Idrissou Mohammadou came in but appeared unsure of his position. The last and surprising switch was  Bedimo Nsame (a leftback) replaced by Enow Eyong Tarkang (a relay midfielder).  After watching the recording of the game twice, am still not clear in what formation Cameroon finished the game in.

They seemed to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 (diamond) and  a 3-4-3  with Geremi, Nkoulou, Song R (at the back) Enow,Song Alex, Makoun, and Emana (at midfield, with the latter as playmaker) and Eto’o (left), Idrissou (centre) Tchoyi (right) at the forward line.

Though it was an audacious move, the players lost their bearings and stepped on each other’s toes in the mad rush to score that equaliser. Eto’o stayed on the left but when he cut inwards he was far from the goal. Alex Song was impressive as usual but kept the ball too long, giving the Gabonese defenders time to return to their positions. These points  need to be re-arranged.

It is easy to criticise the coach after a defeat. Easier still to remember the good players he could or should have picked. Cameroonians are very good at that game since they believe it is their God-given right to win; defeat being the eternal portion for others. It is the sort of pressure that  a good squad could use to its advantage to tame the  Lions.

Years in football club managment have thought me that there are days when things just don’t go your way. So, you allow the technical staff to make adjustments; and you remind the players of their responsibilities – to the colours the defend, the people who die to support them, their careers and the material gains.

Usually, it turns a tame cat into a fierce and indomitable lion…