Well-known faces will be riding the bench for both sides when the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon face off against the Samurai Blue of Japan in Bloemfontein on Monday.
Japan's talismanic veteran, midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, is likely to play a 'super sub' role for manager Takeshi Okada's side, who have a host of gifted midfield options, if little else to recommend them.
Unlike hated rivals South Korea, who opened Group B play with a dominating 2-0 win over Greece, the Samurai Blue appear to lack the coherent team strategy and sense of purpose that is a prerequisite of successful upset bids.
A squad much-maligned for its lack of 'teeth,' Japan will rely heavily on its midfield creativity to clamp down on the Cameroonian attack and feed balls forward on the counter to lone striker (appropriately a converted midfielder) Keisuke Honda, who turns 24 today.
Brazilian-born central defender Marcus Tulio Tanaka, notorious for his high-flying, knee-first tackle which broke the arm of Ivorian striker Didier Drogba on June 4, will join captain Yuji Nakazawa in the central defense. Both will be tasked with tracking Inter Milan playmaker Samuel Eto'o and stifling the creative efforts of midfield ace Achille Emana.
In poor form of late, with only four players on their roster who ply their trade outside of the J League, and with seemingly no legitimate striking options, Japan will look to frustrate Cameroon in the middle third and hope that the Africans' mistakes will generate chances for them to steal one or more points.
United Lions Rampant?
Paul Le Guen's Indomitable Lions have an excellent opportunity in this opening match to set the tone of Group E play.
They kick off shortly after favorites the Netherlands take on Denmark, a solid defensive side who look to be Cameroon's toughest competition for second place in the group. A comfortable, mistake-free win over Japan would allow the Africans to dictate the pace of their June 19 match against Denmark, who should be in the hole following their clash with the Netherlands.
Cameroon must secure a vital three points against their weakest opponent in order to bolster their hopes of knockout round qualification. A draw would leave them in the difficult position of needing points from both their remaining matches.
On paper, Cameroon are superior to their Japanese opponents. The real question is whether they can avoid the mental lapses and tactical errors that have sunk their talented squad in recent years?
Manager Paul Le Guen has revealed startling lineup changes in two press conferences over the past week that, while they may surprise casual football fans, show Cameroon to be a very different team than the one that bowed out in the quarterfinal of the African Cup of Nations in January.
On Monday, in his last official press conference in Yaoundé, Le Guen announced that twice-capped 21-year-old forward Eric Choupo-Moting is likely to start Monday's match over in-form veteran Pierre Webo.
The young Nuremberg striker has looked strong of late, with Le Guen praising him above all else for his intelligent approach. With fewer than two full matches under his belt for the national side, however, and with only 34 minutes on the pitch at the same time as prospective striking partner Eto'o, supporters may be pardoned for scratching their heads at the timing of the decision.
Yesterday, the Lions' manager shocked fans and analysts alike with the twin benchings of starting goalkeeper Carlos Kameni and outstanding young defensive midfielder Alex Song. Neither was scratched for personal, health, or disciplinary reasons; Le Guen simply felt that other options would enable him to "start the tournament with the most competitive team."
Normally, dropping three such bombshells is a privilege reserved for confident, comfortable managers with proven track records of success. It's in no manager's interest to make surprise roster moves only days before the start of the World Cup, especially when goalkeepers are involved.
Nonetheless, the closely followed Indomitable Lions camp has been free of the backbiting and unrest that tend to follow such potentially unpopular moves, suggesting the team have gotten behind the manager and have drunken the Koolaid, so to speak.
The only statements coming out of the Cameroonian camp are very reassuring.
Samuel Eto'o made headlines earlier in the week by spending $1.3 million on designer watches for his teammates, but he's not the only one making sacrifices for the team. Center back and Tottenham Hotspur standout Sebastien Bassong reassured the media that he bears no ill will toward Le Guen despite his frequent benching: "I put it behind me...I have always done absolutely everything I could to be here."
Stephane Mbia, French Ligue 1 champion with Marseille, has not complained about being reassigned from his favored midfield role to the central defense. "I don't mind where I play," he said this week. "I just want to be here to help my team."
A professional publicist could not come up with better sound bites.
Le Guen seems to have figured out how to capitalize on a previously unexploited resource in the strong crossing of Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Landry N'Guemo, Geremi, and Georges Mandjeck, at least three of whom figure to start on Monday.
In Cameroon's last three tune-up matches, all on the road against European World Cup entrants Slovakia, Portugal, and Serbia, the Indomitable Lions scored five goals, all of which were generated from long crosses into the box. Four of those came on headers, and all five were scored without Samuel Eto'o on the pitch.
With their new-found penchant for dynamic wing play supplementing the traditional threat posed by Eto'o, Emana, and young Choupo-Moting, the multiform Cameroonian attack should be too robust for the Japanese to tame.
For Cameroon's part, this match will be about combining the various promising pieces they have shown at different times in different venues into a coherent, cohesive whole.
They have the defensive personnel to prevent Japan from scoring. However, with the Lions' new-look offense reliant on the supporting play of their wing defenders, can players like Assou-Ekotto and Geremi strike a judicious balance between the impulse to go forward and the need to hold a solid back line?
I think that in this environment, and given the remarkable solidarity they've shown in recent weeks behind Eto'o and Le Guen, the Indomitable Lions will pull it all together and make a strong opening statement.
Cameroon will look dangerous crossing the ball and should head one home before halftime. Chasing, Japan will concede a second goal on the ground before time.
Result: 2-0 Indomitable Lions.
Man of the Match: Samuel Eto'o.
Special Mentions: Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Landry N'Guemo.
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