In his press conference today in Durban, Cameroon manager Paul Le Guen shocked the world by revealing that long-time first team goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and Arsenal midfield standout Alex Song will not start in the Indomitable Lions' first match against Japan.
"Alexandre Song may not start the first match against Japan," he announced. "This does not mean there is anything bad about him. He is a great player. It's just that I want to start the tournament with the most competitive team."
Though Song hasn't figured much in the Lions' recent friendlies, most believed that Le Guen was resting him along with Samuel Eto'o, Achille Emana, and other key players who had only recently completed their European campaigns.
Whether this decision signifies that Song will never be a part of Cameroon's "most competitive" starting eleven, or that he can expect to start later in the group stage, is unclear. Le Guen certainly felt obliged to justify the move, which suggests he still thinks highly of Song, who emerged this season as a defensive rock for his North London club.
Either way, this is a surprising and undoubtedly unpopular move that will shock Cameroon supporters who thus far have been given little reason to put their faith in the Frenchman.
After salvaging Cameroon's World Cup qualification campaign last fall, Le Guen led the team to and ignominious quarterfinal exit at the African Cup of Nations, where defensive inconsistency proved their Achilles' heel.
As the only Cameroonian to make the tournament eleven, Song was one of the few bright spots in the Cup of Nations campaign. The only reasonable explanation for the decision to leave him out of the starting eleven is that Le Guen is opting for a more offensive-minded lineup.
Lyon's Jean Makoun has been the first choice as the holding midfielder in the 4-3-1-2 diamond formation Le Guen has favored lately. Alex Song would figure to play on the right side of the midfield, but if the plan is to generate more wing play, Landry N'Guemo, Georges Mandjeck, and Geremi would provide more pace and better crossing ability.
Song is one of the best and most consistent players on the 23-man roster, but if the whole squad has faith in the system Le Guen has put in place, then perhaps the young midfielder can suppress his ego for the sake of the team.
What is harder to understand is the decision to replace one of Europe's top professional goalkeepers in Carlos Kameni with the demonstrably inferior Souleymanou Hamidou.
Kameni is a mercurial talent, to be sure; at the African Cup of Nations he made his fair share of errors. Hamidou, however, has been at least as inconsistent of late. He was directly responsible for one of Serbia's goals on Saturday, and looked shaky on crosses throughout the match.
It's difficult to understand why Le Guen would choose the weaker keeper who has hardly been in top form.
What is more, unlike midfield lineups and formations that can be shuffled and tweaked from match to match and even in mid-play, goalkeepers can't be switched every other day. They need their managers' confidence in order to thrive. Once a keeper is selected, the team must ride his form, for better or worse, until the tournament is over or he makes it impossible for the manager to keep him in play.
Surprise last minute goalkeeping changes can be fatal; Rob Green showed as much today for England. (U-S-A! U-S-A!).
Perhaps Le Guen knows what he is doing.
Morale seems high. The team certainly appears to have jelled in recent weeks. Despite his difficult personality, the decision to give the captaincy to Eto'o seems to have motivated the Inter Milan star and his teammates with him.
Le Guen already announced a controversial lineup decision on Monday, when he revealed his intention to start youngster Eric Choupo-Moting as the second forward against Japan. Choupo-Moting has only made two starts with the national team, while veteran Pierre Webo has scored three goals in his last two matches.
I've been saying for weeks that the name of the game will be consistency. If Le Guen has found a plan of attack that can create opportunities for Emana and Eto'o and if the defense can avoid the mental lapses that haunted them back in January, Cameroon should be favorites to advance, no matter who is in the starting eleven.
If Cameroon don't advance, however, it won't take much soul-searching to find a suitable scapegoat.
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