Cameroon beat the Gambia 1-0 to kick-start their CAF under-20 Africa Cup of Nations campaign in South Africa on Monday. The boys coached by Martin Ndtoungou Mpile were tactically disciplined, controlled most of the game and could (should) have won by more goals were it not for poor finishing and a really bad pitch.

Ndtoungou Mpile set the squad in a 4-4-2 and seemed to have insisted on the boys playing their way up-field instead of flinging long balls over the midfield (as has become common-place among many Cameroon national sides).

The team was compact when it lost the ball with all-four midfielders – Edgar Sally (on the right), Atouba Emane (on the left), Frank Kom and Nyantchou (in the centre) – chasing and harassing the Gambian players for the ball. The two attackers also put pressure high up the field when Cameroon lost possession, pushing the Gambians to skip their midfield via long-balls which were easily managed by the  Cameroonians.

Cameroon’s goalkeeper, Jean Konguep, spent long-spells of the game as a mere spectator. He was only startled back to life at the 72nd minute when he hesitated to come for the ball leaving a Gambian attacker the chance to shoot. Konguep parried the ball away but it fell to another opponent leading to some panicky clearance by the defence.

Both teams were, however, hindered by the poor playing surface. It looked like a farm overrun by a herd of cattle in the rainy season.

It appears all the teams play on the same turf.  Nigeria had beaten Ghana 2-1 on the same ground a few minutes before Cameroon and the Gambia locked-horns.

Yet, Cameroon constantly created movement on the flanks where the full-backs often surged forward through overlapping runs that created passing possibilities for their offensive and midfield team mates.

This hallmark of teams coached by Ndtoungou Mpile, ran the Gambians ragged particularly on the right flank where the full-back Serge Leuko and the offensive midfielder Edgar Salli seemed not to notice the state of the pitch.

Leuko, who plays for Levante in Spain, is one to watch because he is playing in position where there seems to a drought in quality for Cameroon for years.

On the left-flank Atouba displayed a very high work rate while Edimo Toko who replaced him in the dying moments of the game exuded sleekness and better technique. This showed in a brilliant run into the 18-yard box which ended with hard tackle from a Gambian defender. The Cameroon bench asked for a penalty but only got a corner – one of the dozen the team won.

But most of Cameroon’s possession was missused by strikers who  shot when they had to pass, and passed when it was time to shoot. Cameroon scored from a set-piece at the last minute of the first-half which is  testimony to their wastefulness in-front of goal in open-play.

The goal was scored by Cotonsport Garoua’s Edgar Salli whose hopeful kick was fluffed by the Gambian goalkeeper and dropped into the net. Ndtoungou Mpile must work on his team’s finishing before their next game against a very brilliant Nigerian side that gave the reigning African and World Champions, Ghana, a run for their money.

Between the 70th and 80th minutes the midfield had a serious deep in energy levels creating space for the Gambians who had their best spell in the game. Cameroon escaped that time because of it’s centre-back pairing – Yaya Banana and Ghislain Mvom – who played for the U-20s at the World Cup in 2009. They were calm and confident but they weren’t really tested by the Gambians – that won’t be the case against Nigeria.

It was good to watch a team coached by Ndtoungou Mpile again. He was Winfried Schaffer’s assistant when the Indomitable Liosn reached the final of the Confederations Cup in 2003.He has twice been involved in qualifying Cameroon for the Olympic Games (was Akono’s assistant in the 2000 gold medal winning squad) and has won the All Africa Games gold medal with the u-23 in 2007.

His 2008 crop of Olympic Lions were a blend of steel and beautiful play. It is surprising that authorities decided to demote him to the U-20s. The fact that his, is the only Cameroon national team to have qualified for a tournament this far is a vindication of his prowess.