Paul Le Guen's Cameroon squad have questions to answer about their motivation and teamwork after a disappointing first match that should all but end their hopes of advancement at the 2010 World Cup.
A decisive favorite in the match, their opponents came out playing tentatively. Japan clearly looked like a team that was ready to bunker down and wait for Cameroon to over-extend themselves.
That over-extension never came, however, as the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon looked offensively inept from the opening whistle. Rarely over the course of the match did they look comfortable in possession or willing to seize control of the midfield.
The more the Lions showed a total inability to move the ball forward, the more Japan gained confidence and attempted a few abortive sallies down the sideline.
After 15 minutes, neither team had developed a rhythm.
Japan, sensing something was not clicking among their faster, more talented opponents, began to test the lax defending of Benoit Assou-Ekotto on the right flank. His eagerness to push forward was only matched by his nonchalance in marking Grenoble winger Daisuke Matsui.
This pattern would be revisited twenty minutes later with devastating results. In the 38th minute, Matsui, one of Japan's stars on the day, embarrassed Assou-Ekotto with a sharp cutting move in the right channel and found Keisuke Honda wide open at the back post with a bending cross. Honda had time enough to settle and slot the ball home past the hapless Souleymanou Hamidou, who had no chance at stopping the well-placed shot.
With only seven minutes till the break, Cameroon seemed to wake up to the fact that they were at the World Cup Finals.
Despite the spark of urgency, however, their forward play remained impotent, as their defenders and defensive midfielders showed the same inability to create in the middle third.
Second Half Signs of Life
Le Guen, somewhat surprisingly, stuck to his guns at halftime, keeping the same conservative lineup on the pitch that had started the first half.
It didn't seem to be the worst decision in the world at first, as the Lions came roaring out of the locker room, looking a completely different side than the one that started.
They immediately began by attacking the wings, a strategy that gave them a lot of success leading up to the World Cup.
Their three-man forward line wove back-and-forth from left to right and switched positions, exploiting their decisive advantages in size, speed, and skill.
A great cross from Eric Choupo-Moting in the 47th minute looked to set the tone that Cameroon should have struck in the first period; things were looking up.
Choupo-Moting fed the ball through the box, forcing a panicky Japanese full back to clear the ball out for a corner, with Samuel Eto'o lurking over his right shoulder.
Choupo-Moting continued to use his lanky, 6'3" frame to good effect on both wings. He was one of the bright spots for Cameroon, but his and others' crosses never seemed to find an open man.
Off a throw-in in the 49th minute, Eto'o made a highlight-worthy run which split three Japanese defenders and left him streaking toward goal along the touch line. Eto'o skillfully laced the ball back to the feet of the wide open Choupo-Moting, but the youngster showed his inexperience in leaning back and curling his shot wide left.
Cameroon clearly had the run of play for the next twenty minutes, as Japan tried to get down the wings from time to time, only to run into dead ends near the corner flags.
Despite spurts of quick-passing play and strong peeling runs along the sidelines, the final ball rarely seemed to be released, and when it did, it never found its mark.
15 minutes into the second period, Cameroon were still dominating possession, but generating very little creative play from their trio of defensive midfielders, Eyong Enoh, Jean Makoun, and Joel Matip.
Enoh and Matip in particular looked totally inept going forward. This begs the question, why, if Paul Le Guen was not going to put a more offensive lineup on the field, did he not start the vastly more talented player in Alex Song, rather than the inexperienced and less-skilled Matip and Enoh?
Choupo-Moting, continuing his intelligent play, once again took a good run, driving 20 yards down the left and cutting to the edge of the box where he let fly a rather tame right-footed effort. His shot was off the mark, but the idea was solid, and he proved himself to be one of the only players with the heart and motor to give a 90 minute effort. Unfortunately, he would be subbed in the 75th minute for Mohammadou Idrissou, who proved ineffective.
Not surprisingly, Joel Matip was the first to exit in the 64th minute, making way for the attack-minded Achille Emana. Emana was probably the most conspicuous omission from the starting lineup. As the team's only bona fide central attacking midfielder, his exclusion from the gameplan defies rational explanation.
Shortly after coming on, a quick throw-in from Eto'o to Emana caught Japan scrambling in the box, but the ball was quickly cleared. Japan did very little to win the game, but it certainly cannot be said that they were lacking effort or discipline on the back end.
Unable or Unwilling to Storm the Bunker
As the clock crept toward the 70th minute, Japan looked increasingly inclined to waste time and protect their slim lead. The question was, could they bunker down and defend for 20 minutes?
Turns out, yes, they could. The Indomitable Lions seemed totally unable to control the run of play for any length of time on offense, and a good deal of credit is due to Marcus Tulio Tanaka and captain Yuji Nakazawa for coolly sealing off the middle of the defense.
There was a lack of coordination about Cameroon's play, even in the desperate final 20-25 minutes, that forces questions about the lineup deployed by Le Guen.
In the 71st minute, substitute Emana made a good stabbing run toward edge of box. However, with nobody following his lead, he ran into a tsunami of blue shirts on the 18-yard-line.
In the 73rd minute, Enoh won the ball close to the half, creating a good counterattacking opportunity, but the play went straight up the middle and again was muffled by a crushing blue swarm.
The same play repeated itself minutes later, only to produce a questionable lifted pass that sailed well over the head of Pierre Webo, who was in an offside position anyway.
Why was Enoh still in the match? For that matter, why did he start the match?
A double substitution in the 75th minute saw the exit of Makoun and, surprisingly to my mind, Choupo-Moting, in favor of the hapless and lead-footed Mohammadou Idrissou and Geremi, who probably should have entered the match 30 minutes earlier.
By that point in time, however, Japan had long since begun to play with 11 men behind the ball. Cameroon, perplexed, reverted to their first half strategy of booting the ball forward and hoping one of their outnumbered strikers would be able to flick the ball down to an equally outnumbered teammate.
In the last ten minutes, with darkness descending on the pitch, Cameroon jogged back and forth across the park, never seeming to have a numerical advantage at any one point and never looking poised in possession.
Four or five yellow jerseys were permanently fixed near the top of the 18-yard-box. What these players expected to get from their total lack of effort is a mystery, however, as Japan were content to hold their line and swarm around the ball as soon as it hit the ground.
A surprise chance to steal a point presented itself in the 87th minute, when Stephane Mbia almost crushed the crossbar inward with a rocket strike from 30 yards. In the ensuing scramble, an Emana shot deflected into the arms of the Japanese keeper, but these opportunities were the exception to the rule over the final 20 minutes.
Japan were able to hold their own and run out four uneventful minutes of stoppage time.
They certainly vindicated controversial manager Takeshi Okada with some gutsy teamwork and disciplined defending. To be frank, though, the match was fed to them with a frustratingly large soup spoon.
Lack of Offense Forces Questions About Le Guen's Lineup
Paul Le Guen must shoulder the lion's share of the blame on this one.
His team looked unprepared and totally inept in face of the expectation that they would dominate possession. The more they showed an unwillingness to go forward, the more they signalled to Japan that the lineup their manager fielded was worth far less than the sum of its parts.
It's one thing to lose valiantly to a superior opponent, as Cameroon have done in past World Cups. Today, however, Cameroon gave a match away that was clearly theirs for the taking.
Why, when Japan was such an inferior attacking team, did Le Guen crowd his midfield with defensive players who had no idea what to do going forward?
And why, if it was not his intention to put strong wing players like Landry N'Guemo and Geremi in the lineup, did Le Guen start less talented players like Eyong Enoh and Joel Matip over Alex Song and Achille Emana—two of Cameroon's four best players?
Why, when it came time to make substitutions, did Le Guen take off one of the few bright spots in the Cameroon attack, Eric Choupo-Moting, instead of the largely ineffective Pierre Webo?
Personally, I was left wondering whether Le Guen is doing the best with the talent he has available, or whether he is trying to reshape the Indomitable Lions to resemble the faded memory of his own playing days?
Cameroon have a difficult task ahead in trying to make it to the knockout stage.
They will need at least one win to challenge for second place, but up against solid defensive side Denmark and group favorites the Netherlands, their toughest challenges lie ahead.
Cameroon still have the personnel to score goals, but will Le Guen deploy a lineup that will give them a fighter's chance at advancing?
On Saturday, with seemingly no pressure on them anymore, can Eto'o and the boys salvage some pride with a win over the disciplined Danes?