With both teams losing their first group game, this was a real test for both Cameroon and Croatia, where one side would be leaving the tournament if they succumbed to yet another defeat. Croatia had a slight advantage with Eto’o being out injured; as well as the return of their main striker, Bayern Munich’s Mario Mandžukić, who missed out against Brazil due to a one match suspension which he earned all the way back in the qualifiers. The game also featured a return of Danijel Pranjić on the left flank for Croatia, and Brazilian-born Sammir playing as a starter right behind Mandžukić instead of young Mateo Kovačić. As for Cameroon, the absence of Eto’o meant Aboubakar of FC Lorient was going in as his replacement, with a few more rotations in the team tactics.
FORMATION & LINE-UPS
Croatia (4-2-3-1): Pletikosa – Srna, Ćorluka, Lovren, Pranjić – Modrić, Rakitić – Perišić (Rebić 78′), Sammir (Kovačić 72′), Olić (Eduardo 69′) – Mandžukić
Cameroon (4-1-4-1): Itandje – Mbia, N’Kolou, Chedjou (Nounkeu 46′), Assou-Ekotto – Matip – Moukandjo, Song, Enoh, Choupo-Moting (Salli 75′) – Aboubakar (Webo 70′)
Goals: Olić (11′), Perišić (48′), Mandžukić (61′, 73′)
Yet another tough opening
Croatia went into the game with its full squad, featuring the return of both Mandžukić up front and Pranjić in the back. Cameroon on the other hand lost Eto’o, who although being 33 still possess a great deal of explosiveness and goal-scoring ability. That deficit meant the whole team being rotated with Mbia, nominally a holder, being placed on a right back position, and Alex Song pushed in the middle, while Joel Matip was playing as their sole holder this time.
The game started roughly, with Cameroon trying to overcrowd and exploit the middle, having obviously, the physically stronger players in that part of the field. Their intention was to overcrowd the midfield and then try to put the ball behind Pranjić, in which Finke found a possible gap. That worked well for the initial 15 minutes or so, where Pranjić had a significant ammount of trouble with his positioning when opposed to Mbia, making more than a few fouls in the danger zone because of his failed attempts at direct tackling, due to the fact that he was simply weaker than the Cameroon players coming right at him. Lovren was often being pushed forward in order to cover up that left flank, and Croatia had also trouble retaining possession in the midfield; Sammir, Croatia’s Brazilian-born playmaker had to continuously come in deep to get the ball, but mostly failing to make an impact once he had recieved it. Rakitić & Modrić were still trying to find a most suitable way to feed the trio up front with quality passes, but due to Cameroon being very active in that part of the field they simply couldn’t find space for that.
Early goal drops Cameroon’s guards
But it all went down for Cameroon once Croatia managed to score from their first real chance. Prior to the goal, we saw Modrić passing his long trademark ball from behind to Srna, who then proceeded to cross the ball ahead to Mandžukić; after the cross was denied the ball fell to Perišić, who saw Olić opening up on the other side of the box, easily finding his space to score in front of N’Kolou. That lead came as sort of a trigger for an unstable Cameroon squad, because what we saw from them afterwards may just be the worst team display on show at this edition of the World Cup. Their defensive play was absolute horror, leaking all around and leaving too much space between players, which logically came as a gift to the Croatian midfield. Modrić and Rakitić had the opportunity to get a breather and to lead the attacks from their deeper positions, but it still appears that they haven’t showed their best, although their 123 passes being put together had a completion rate of little under 87%. Cameroon was however holding out even with their minds obvioulsy drifting more and more away as the half time was closing in, but then the final act came to the scene.
Alex Song’s red card as a mirror image of his team’s breakdown
If Cameroon had somehow managed to put their heads together after Croatia scored their first, what happened in 40th minute cannot be described as anything other than plain stupidity. Alex Song punched Mandžukić from behind while not even being close to the ball, proving that there is obviously a lot of frustration and issues in Cameroon’s locker room. Basically, they came back to play the second half pro forma, knowing that their appearance came to an end after that red card. Finke tried to salvage something from this match, switching Chedjou for Nounkeu in an attempt to shake up their back line a bit, which was repeatedly losing track of Croatian wingers. At the same time the two centre-backs were standing too far apart in the middle, both failing to cut out the opposition’s through passes. But all that was to no success; Perišić – who perhaps played his finest game for Croatia yet – scored the second goal after an erroneous pass from Itandje. He recieved the ball and went on to storm down towards the Cameroonian goal, with absolutely no one in his way. That type of situation was repeated on numerous occasions; Croatia were exploiting the middle as well as the right flank, with Srna often finding too much space, and both Moukandjo and Moting being way too slow to provide any suitable assistance to Assou- Ekotto and Mbia as their last line of defence at that point.
One way street
Ivica Olić, Croatian’s veteran winger is a hard-working player who will ensure that he gives his last drop of sweat on the field before calling it a day, but he lacks both technical ability as well as the gift of timing, which leaves him somewhat deprived of being titled as a player who can truly fulfill that role for any stronger side. However, him and Perišić seemed unstoppable for most of their play, and with Mandžukić roaming around, the Cameroonian centre backs simply couldn’t cope with the fast transitions, which then led to Croatia (mostly Mandžukić) finding space in front of their goal very easily. For instance, Mbia didn’t even bother to mark Mandzukic when he scored his second goal of the evening after netting a loose ball, when Itandje deflected Eduardo’s shot. Cameroon simply gave up, desperately trying to combine and to find space for a possible counter, but that only led to more disastrous gaps at the back which weren’t even completely punished by Croatia. It is really fair to say that Cameroon provided us with a horrible performance, especially in the second half, and it could have been even worse for them if Croatia had a little more focus in front of the goal.
KEY PLAYER OF THE MATCH
Although Mario Mandžukić came back in style, the man of the match award should have been given to Ivan Perišić. The Croatian right winger provided us with a great match in both ways, even when Croatia couldn’t prove a point in midfield. He had troubles finding a firm place in the Croatia squad for some time, but it appears that he has finally settled in during this tournament. Against Cameroon he was the main target of the Cameroonian players, with the most fouls committed on him (4). He also had a pass-completion rate of 86%, with three shots of which one found the net, and the second came as a near miss. His vision of the space in front of him was also neat; the assist he provided for Olić in a situation when a lot of players would try to place a shot themselves was outstanding. We hope to see more from him against Mexico.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THEM
Cameroon undisputedly have much larger issues than the fact that they lost any chance to proceed to another round. The harmony in their team is obviously extremely disrupted, and they still have the toughest match to go. Finke now has a really hard time rallying the squad in order to avoid a massacre versus Brazil, which is at this point very likely to happen. Brazil have left a bad taste in their fans’ mouth in both, the Croatia and Mexico games, and they have to provide themselves with one convincing match ahead of the second round. What better victim than this Cameroonian pile of demoralised and irritated players?
As for Croatia, this convincing final score could come as a Pyrrhic victory if they don’t see the other part of it. The final score does not reflect the true difference between these two teams, and Croatia simply has yet to realize their weaknesses, of which there are more than a few. The left back still poses a great issue for the defensive part of their game, with Pranjić – who is more keen to play up front – not providing a secure option versus stronger opposition. Also, Modrić and Rakitić only started to get fully involved once Cameroon started to drop back and left too much space for the midfielders. The duo, especially Rakitić, seems to struggle when being pressed up high, and their current level of play simply isn’t living up to the expectations of the team whose play is largely based around them.
Another weak link is the player behind Mandžukić; Sammir, a member of FC Getafe simply didn’t do what he was expected to. He did show us that he is willing to come and collect the ball, but he still isn’t sure what he should do once he gets it. Watching him move around the field often leaves a sense of nonchalance; a feeling of him knowing what he has to do, but instead doing it in a form of a kid who had just been tricked into cleaning his room if he wants to play the videogames. Sure, he will do what he is told, but in a boring and lazy fashion. Sammir was incomplete in every aspect of his game, both defensively and up front. Kovačić on the other hand came in later in the match; the youngster was a starter v Brazil, but was located as a weak link in that game being drowned amongst stronger players and with his space narrowed down he simply wasn’t doing it for Croatia. He was somewhat more free and relieved playing those twenty minutes last night, but on the other hand Cameroon had collapsed in a way that suits Kovačić, often seeking more wider space, but that opportunity will not arise again soon.
Croatia has a fair chance to fight with Mexico, who are playing above their expectations, in their final group game. This match has arrived as a welcoming morale-booster, but on the other hand, if Croatia uses this match as a rule and not as merely an example, they could easily get complacent and lose it all.
This article was written by Juraj Vrdoljak. Follow him on Twitter @sobonja
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