With Cameroon on the plane to South Africa yesterday, much has transpired in the last week that may bear on the Indomitable Lions' form and morale in the World Cup.
Saturday's see-saw performance in Belgrade against Serbia, Paul Le Guen's final pre-tournament press conference, even Samuel Eto'o's Santa Claus moment all provide hints about what to expect from Cameroon in their first match against Japan on Monday.
Can it be that they're hitting their stride at just the right time to make the deep run that will do not only the nation, but all of Africa proud?
Offensive Upswing in the Final Friendly
Manager Paul Le Guen has done everything in his power to defy predictability in the friendly schedule he lined up for his squad over the last few weeks.
Saturday's match in Belgrade was no different, as Cameroon shocked their opponents and supporters alike by lining up in a 3-4-3 lineup against Serbia. With Eto'o suspended for a red card, this meant recently FIFA-approved Eric Choupo-Moting, who impressed in his appearance against Portugal, joined 18-year-old Vincent Aboubakar and in-form Pierre Webo on the attacking line.
Alex Song sat out while Jean Makoun and Stephane Mbia (who is likely to start in the central defense) anchored the midfield. Georges Mandjeck and Eyong Enoh played on the wings.
In defense, Tottenham's Sebastien Bassong held down the middle in a rare starting appearance, while Nicolas Nkoulou and Benoit Assou-Ekotto played on the flanks.
Cameroon showed an impressive offensive spark, scoring twice in the opening 20 minutes against a star-studded Serbian back line.
The only problem was that the defense was so porous that they couldn't keep the Serbs from responding within five minutes each time. After the second Serb goal in the 25th, Le Guen switched the formation to a 4-3-3, but Stephane Mbia was awarded a yellow card on a questionable penalty in the 44th minute. After converting the PK, Serbia were able to sneak another goal in the 45th, leaving the score at a whopping 4-2 at the break.
Cameroon kept Serbia off the board in the second half after Le Guen made wholesale lineup changes. They even managed to get a goal back in the 67th minute, but the match ended 4-3.
Clearly, the defense were in the doghouse after the match, though the aggressive starting formation certainly made it difficult for Nkoulou, Bassong, and Assou-Ekotto to find a rhythm in the opening quarter of the match.
Despite the inconsistent defensive effort, there were several positives to be taken from the performance.
The first encouraging sign was the goal by Choupo-Moting, his first goal for Cameroon in only his second capped appearance. Le Guen's faith in the 21-year-old Nuremberg striker is paying dividends, as the lithe 6'3" youngster seems to be rounding into dangerous form in time for Cameroon's first match.
Benoit Assou-Ekotto continued his strong play at left back, tallying his third assist in as many matches and showcasing a deadly-accurate cross that will add an important aerial dimension to the Indomitable Lions' attack.
Geremi Njitap, a second half substitution, demonstrated his continued ability to contribute at the international level, sending in a great cross to assist Choupo-Moting in the second half.
Most impressive of late, Pierre Webo tallied his second and third goals in the last two matches, both on strong headers off long crosses. In light of Mohammadou Idrissou's inconsistency over the last few weeks, it would not be surprising if Webo has locked down the second striker's spot.
Since qualification, the biggest question mark for this Lions team has been offensive creativity in support of Eto'o. Three aerial strikes against a strong World Cup side should answer a whole lot of questions as to how the goals will come. With dangerous wing play to take pressure off Achille Emana and Eto'o in the middle, Cameroon may prove one of the most versatile attacking sides in South Africa.
If the deep, talented defensive personnel can live up to expectations, the Indomitable Lions may be primed for an historic run.
Surprise Lineup Hint from Manager's Press Conference
On Monday, Le Guen spoke to the media in Yaoundé, assessing the team's aspirations and fitness, as well as providing some surprise hints at the starting lineup against Japan.
He repeated his claim from May that the quarterfinals are a "reasonable objective," which, if met, would install his 2010 squad atop the pantheon of Cameroon football alongside the famous 1990 Indomitable Lions team.
Le Guen's optimism was bolstered by his squad's fitness and by his conviction that the mercurial Samuel Eto'o will rise to the occasion.
He further revealed his faith in the unheralded Eric Choupo-Moting, going so far as to suggest he is so confident in the young striker that Choupo-Moting may have earned the honor of starting Cameroon's opening match against Japan: "I will be counting on Eto'o and Choupo-Moting to make a good match and score goals, because they are very intelligent players."
Whether Le Guen intends for Choupo-Moting to be a regular partner for Eto'o, or whether he intends to significantly alter his starting line for each new opponent remains to be seen, but his words at the press conference clearly signal that a surprise may be in store for Monday's match.
Final Verdict: Will They or Won't They?
The Indomitable Lions look to be rounding into form at just the right time.
Le Guen has had a chance to see several combinations of players in multiple formations since March. Though the defense has been inconsistent in that time, shutting out Italy only to allow four goals in the first half to Serbia, the Cameroon manager does not seem overly concerned about the performance of the back line.
His confidence may be misplaced, but it certainly suggests a reassuringly high level of fitness and morale across the squad.
As for the offense, it has been the big unknown since Le Guen took over the team. Do the Lions have the midfield creativity and the forwards to make their attack anything more than a one-man show?
Emphasizing wing play and aerial combinations, Le Guen seems to have found the winning formula, and if there is anything that can be gleaned with a certainty from the last few weeks of trials and experimentation, it's that Cameroon will not go out due to a lack of goal-scoring.
If the back four can hold their line while still allowing the full backs to launch themselves forward from time to time, the Indomitable Lions will not only be hard to break down, but near impossible to stop.
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