Just four days after threatening to skip the World Cup, Cameroon's superstar striker and captain, Samuel Eto'o, was booked twice in barely a minute and expelled from the Indomitable Lions World Cup tune-up against Portugal.
What should have been a dry-run for Cameroon's starting eleven in the lead-up to the tournament ceased to be a serious competition after Eto'o was sent off for inexplicably arguing a 32nd minute goal from Raul Meireles and shortly thereafter venting his frustration with a late tackle on defender Duda.
Cameroon did well to generate chances without their star after the sending-off, and even recovered a goal in the 69th minute thanks to a sublime header from RCD Mallorca striker Pierre Webó. However, even before Eto'o's characteristically petulant display, Portugal had been ascendant, and Lions supporters once again must scratch their heads and wonder what to expect come June 14.
Bright Spots Shine Through in the 23-Man Roster
With Gaëtan Bong and Maxim Choupo-Moting's nationality appeals approved by FIFA, the 23-man Cameroon roster was set ahead of Tuesday's match in Covilha, Portugal.
And despite losing 3-1 on Meireles' brace and a late insurance goal from Manchester United winger Nani, Cameroon's resilient youth and depth showed on the day.
Youngster Choupo-Moting generated a great shot against Portuguese keeper Eduardo before Webó replaced him on the hour-mark. Benoît Assou-Ekotto tallied his second assist from left back in as many games, and 20-year-old Monaco center back and surprise starter Nicolas N'Koulou largely neutralized Cristiano Ronaldo, doing credit to manager Paul Le Guen's faith in the youngster.
The original 11-man line-up was deployed in a 4-3-1-2—likely the formation they will favor to start against most opponents in South Africa—and included a couple players that are less likely to start at the World Cup: Nuremberg striker Choupo-Moting and Kaiserslautern midfielder Georges Mandjeck.
The 'diamond' lineup emphasized the Lions' midfield strength and defensive versatility.
Normally a midfielder, Mendjack began the match at right back, where he played opposite Tottenham's Assou-Ekotto. The back of the midfield was anchored by Arsenal's Alex Song, Lyon's Jean Makoun, and Ajax's Eyong Enoh, a youngish line to be sure, but one whose world-class experience will be leaned on in front of a younger central defensive pair in 24-year-old Stephane Mbia and 20-year-old N'Koulou.
In general, Mbia and N'Koulou impressed with surprising maturity against a star-studded Portuguese line. Before Eto'o's ejection, Portugal gained most of their opportunities by exploiting the undisciplined tendencies of Assou-Ekotto and Mendjack, who both seemed over-eager to drift forward all day. This is a dangerous precedent, considering the counterattacking styles of Japan and Denmark, and Le Guen must emphasize cohesion across the back four heading into their June 5 match against Serbia in Belgrade.
No. 10 Achille Emana, the creative engine of the Cameroon attack, was substituted in the second half to give Landry N'Guemo a run around. Real Betis striker Webó may have won himself a starting job as his second half laser offered a stark contrast to the missed opportunities offered up by Mohammadou Idrissou in his last couple of appearances.
Forgettable Outings From Experienced Stars
The two most disappointing players on the pitch may have been the two most important, in goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and captain Eto'o.
Kameni lived up to his reputation as a world-class shot-stopper, but also demonstrated the startling inconsistency that hounded him at the African Cup of Nations this winter. Just after halftime he allowed an accidental "I meant to do that" goal, Meireles' second, on a floating cross that would have been handled easily were Kameni in position. Soft goals like that will sink Cameroon in South Africa, and Kameni cannot allow lapses in form to overshadow his finer moments.
To paraphrase Rodgers and Hammerstein, how do you solve a problem like Samuel Eto'o? (How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?).
At 29, he's still one of the most dangerous strikers in the game today, but after his tantrum on Friday and his first half meltdown on Tuesday, Eto'o is looking less like a bullet train than a train wreck. When Zinedine Zidane pulled similar stunts for France, he at least had the courtesy of waiting later in the match and scoring a goal or three first. Zidane also played for a team that could better afford to lose him.
It's not the World Cup yet, so hysteria would be unwarranted. But at this point, Eto'o will only have played one match with the team (assuming FIFA permit him to play in Belgrade on Saturday) before taking the field against Japan on June 14 in Bloemfontein.
Everything can still come together for the Lions, but they're fast running out of chances to get their act together, and their captain certainly isn't helping.
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