By Elume Raymond™
The Indomitable Lions were dealt a difficult assignment in Qatar, where they’ll hope to put an end to a 20-year wait for another win on the World Cup stage.
With national legend Samuel Eto’o presiding as federation president, the Indomitable Lions booked their ticket to the World Cup in stunning fashion in March by upsetting Algeria. Trailing 2–1 on aggregate in the second leg of the World Cup qualifying playoff, Karl Toko Ekambi scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time in extra-time to punch his nation’s World Cup ticket on away goals. While there is plenty to argue about how Cameroon arrived, it will look to make its mark in a group where most have it pegged to finish last.
After the nation finished third in the African Cup of Nations it hosted last winter, Cameroon dismissed Toni Conceição and brought in football legend Rigobert Song for the qualifying playoff.
Song got the job done despite his coaching experience being limited to just the Cameroon national team youth setup. A former Liverpool defender, the 46-year-old is Cameroon’s all-time appearances leader with 137 caps and played in four World Cups.
But other than the World Cup playoff triumph, Cameroon has struggled under Song with three losses in seven matches so far. One of the most concerning issues is that Cameroon has been shut out in four of its last nine games despite its top players mostly coming at the forward position. The Indomitable Lions will arrive with some top-level talent spread around Europe, such as Napoli midfielder André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, Inter Milan goalkeeper André Onana and Bayern Munich forward Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. But a massive challenge awaits in Qatar.
In 1990, Cameroon became the first African team to make the quarterfinals of the World Cup—it has played in all but two World Cups since. But even just a win at this World Cup would be a massive accomplishment, let alone making the knockout stage. So much of the team’s fortunes looks to fall in the hands of its talented forwards, but its defence will come in as one of the weakest in the tournament while Zambo Anguissa will be left to deal with the strong midfields and attacks of Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia.
Cameroon lost to Brazil in the 2014 World Cup when they shared a group, and that 4–1 score line could very well be repeated in Qatar. The Indomitable Lions’ best hope is to take points from games against Switzerland and Serbia and hope that Brazil is already through by the time they meet in the group finale. Cameroon has won only one game at the World Cup since 1990 (in 2002 against Saudi Arabia), and its real goal should be to try to end that 20-year winless streak (0-7-0) in Qatar. Anything after that would be a massive bonus.
Cameroon’s strength lies in its solid midfield play and potent attack, with a physically imposing style of play.
Choupo-Moting, who has been in great form, scoring 10 goals in his last nine games, is counting on team spirit within the Indomitable Lions squad to push them through rather than individual quality.
“We’re about good team and fighting spirit. We saw that in the recent World Cup play-offs against Algeria – one of Africa’s best teams,” he said.
“We lost the first leg 1-0 at home, hardly anyone was backing us. Then we took it to extra-time in the second leg, conceded an equaliser for 1-1 in the 118th minute, but then we made it 2-1 in the fourth minute of added time to go to the World Cup. I’ll never forget that moment in my life.”
“We don’t have any big stars in the team who stand out like Roger Milla or Samuel Eto’o before. We’re about togetherness as a team and desire.”
The Cameroon side on show at the last Africa Cup of Nations, which they hosted, were a perfect example of what to expect in Qatar.
They ranked third for possession (59.7 per cent average), topped the tournament’s scoring charts (14, including penalties) and created the second-most shots (10) and goals (three) from crosses but went out in the semi-finals, losing to Egypt on penalties after a 0-0 draw.
Rigobert Song’s side are at their best when they get the ball forward quickly into advanced wide areas, either via the goalkeeper playing long and them winning second balls or through long switches from the defenders to wide players who can cross for their forwards — Vincent Aboubakar, Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Karl Toko Ekambi are all strong one-touch finishers in the penalty area.
Rarely, however, do those three play together. If they do, then Song will likely set his side up in a 4-4-2 but more typical is their 4-3-3, where Toko Ekambi plays inverted on the left and Nicolas Moumi Ngamaleu is on the opposite side.
Ngamaleu is a right-footed right-winger and Collins Fai overlaps him from right-back. Both are good crossers of the ball, which accounts for Cameroon’s imbalanced chance creation down that side.
Fai assisted Toko Ekambi goals twice at that AFCON, with the left-winger locking off the back post, though Cameroon rarely flood the box with players — the speed of their build-up just does not give midfielders enough time to make such runs.
In terms of personnel — aside from goalkeeper Andre Onana, as he is a shot stopper rather than a shot preventer — this area is weaker than up front. Cameroon rarely keep clean sheets and give up plenty of chances.
They conceded in each of their first four AFCON games at the start of this year, despite not facing high-quality opponents and even needed a second-half comeback to recover from 3-0 down in winning the third-place play-off against Burkina Faso on penalties.
Cameroon’s typical midfield three, with high wingers, offers opponents space around the sides and often forces them to defend crosses. Algeria exploited this in their World Cup play-off in March, creating four big chances and having 23 shots worth 2.3xG across the two legs.
Although Cameroon squeezed through to the World Cup on away goals from a stoppage-time equaliser in the second leg, they had difficulty pressing high in that tie and struggled to keep possession against quality opponents.
There isn’t a reliable source of goals aside from Karl Toko Ekambi. His seven goals for the team this year was not supplemented enough by team-mates. One could point to captain Vincent Aboubakar’s eight goal-haul at this year’s AFCON, until the quality of opposition is laid bare. It is nothing close to what’s coming in Qatar. The hope is that Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s sudden burst of form at Bayern Munich (10 goals between mid-October and early November) could spill into the World Cup.
There is a lack of goals against top teams. The last time they won by more than a two-goal margin was against Ethiopia (4-1 in January 2022) and Malawi (4-0 in November 2021), hardly top-tier.
Indeed, you’d have to go back to June 2017 for the last time Cameroon played a truly world-class team — they lost 3-1 to Germany. This dearth of quality games is a big reason why the Indomitable Lions have struggled against better sides.
Then there’s the cohesion problem.
Changing coaches, trying new systems, and inconsistent line-ups have deprived the team of the rhythm required ahead of a major competition like the World Cup. Finishing third at the AFCON, they hosted masked problems in transitioning, ball recovery and finishing.
Opportunities and Threats
The first match is a tight opener against Switzerland. Switzerland won its last three games, all against stark opposition. Portugal, Spain, and the Czech Republic. The Swiss can beat top teams as they did in Euros against France, and they consistently shut down Italy during World Cup qualifying to make it to Qatar.
For all their defensive quality, Switzerland are lacking at the other end of the pitch, without a reliable alternative No 9 to Embolo. He ranked among the 20 fastest players at Euro 2020 last summer for top speed — 32.76km/h versus Italy — and, as a winger-turned-striker, is best suited to a counter-attacking approach.
The Swiss often threaten teams this way, with only Serbia (19) and Germany (18) bettering their 16 direct attacks in qualifying. But Switzerland were the joint-lowest scorers of any European team to qualify for these finals (15, with Spain). Embolo was their most prolific player with three goals, and only one other got more than one.
Switzerland’s stifling defence will be Cameroon’s biggest threat, especially considering its reliance on an overpowering offense. Cameroon can break down Switzerland’s compact defence by taking notes from Portugal’s 4-0 demolition in the Nations League.
Quick counterattacks and flurries of movement forced Switzerland into action, letting Cristiano Ronaldo wreak havoc and cause chaos. If Aboubakar can move the Switzerland centre-backs out of position, Cameroon has a fighting chance of getting a few points out of the Swiss.
Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo represented France at youth level but has switched allegiance and now represents Cameroon — he made his debut in the September friendlies. Cameroon are not lacking in quality forward options but the benefit is his directness, ball-carrying ability and final pass that suits their attacking approach.
All fans want is to get a win, for starters. In a group featuring Brazil, Switzerland and Serbia, this squad, bereft of obvious star power like they used to have, will be seen as miracle workers should they advance into the knockout stage.
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