In a weekend that was brimming over with extraordinary results and unexpected scorelines, these two teams managed to not upset the bookmakers by staying on-task, as they were sent towards the upper echelons of Group G by both winning their respective games on Saturday. In a tough group, Cameroon and Ivory Coast are probably the two teams that most people would expect to go through to the tournament proper, so it is likely that whoever takes the spoils in this match could be the one that sits atop the rest when it comes to the final round of games to be played.
Taking place in Cameroonian football stronghold Yaounde, the hosts came through a tough match against DR Congo to secure a 2-0 victory, in what was a tough game for more than just the opponents that they were facing. Indeed, a certain amount of the difficult of this game lied in the circumstances they were accustomed with, as the recovery from the tournament-that-shall-not-be-mentioned in Brazil this summer was compounded by the retirement of record top-scorer Samuel Eto’o, in a decision that goes far beyond simply needing to fill his position. With manager Volker Finke ringing the changes for this duo of matches, the games against DR Congo marked the official start of the post-Eto’o era, as scrub the proverbial slate clean and open a new box of chalk to sketch out the future of Cameroonian football.
With four players making their debut and a couple of old names called back from the mist, Finke showed an impressive willingness to enforce change, as he ousted those he deemed to have a negative influence on the team and included fresh players unbounded from the previous regime. He was rewarded with a 2-0 from this, as debutant Clinton N’Jie knocked in the first goal, and new vice-captain and probably Eto’o boot-filler Vincent Aboubakar scored a lovely second.
The problems were by no-means eliminated, however. They were still stodgy in possession, they still lacked that creative edge; but this was an important victory for the Indomitable Lions, and one they must try to build upon when they face Ivory Coast on Wednesday. As previously mentioned, this will probably be the second-toughest game they face – behind the return leg in Abidjan – but any sort of point against the strongest team on the continent will bode well for Finke’s side as they aim to qualify for a tournament they haven’t reached since 2010.
Ivory Coast meanwhile are going through a few changes of their own – though enforced not by horrendous performance but rather just time itself – as the inevitable day when key members of this squad moved on. Bringing in a new manager in Herve Renard, following the resignation of Sabri Lamouchi after the World Cup, he has attempted to gently ease in the next generation of stars – including those who have Ivorian citizenship through family but had not previously declared. Eric Ti-Bie and Lamine Kone were included in the squad as such, alongside those from the Ivorian domestic league, with 17-year-old defender Franck Kessie starting alongside Serge Aurier in the centre of defence in the 2-1 win over Sierra Leone at the weekend.
Indeed, goals from the now un-retired Seydou Doumbia and Gervinho ensured that they did not start the Renard reign with a loss, despite them going in behind at half-time. The centre of defence had the biggest revamp, as Aurier and Kessie started alongside each other, despite the former normally playing right-back (though, with the skillset he has, he is equally adept in the middle). Again, it was not perfect, with the leaky defence once again rearing it’s unpleasant head – but it was adequate. One can take solace at only conceding one goal with a brand new, very young centre-back pairing against a tricky Sierra Leone side that were underestimated by many, and certainly holds a lot more hope than the dysfunctional, 66-year-old combined pairing of Kolo Toure and Didier Zokora previously used. The attacking impetus has never left – with Seydou Doumbia a welcome return to the squad after his 3 months of “retirement” – and deserves to be there.
Logically, one would assume that Ivory Coast would take this one. An excellent attack you would imagine would take apart a defence that is still finding its feet, though the threat that Cameroon may pose at the other end it also worth considering, as Ivory Coast equally have a poor defence. One the face of it, one would assume that it is likely to be a high scoring game, but one must also bare in mind the wariness the teams are likely to have of one another – given that this is likely to be one of the deciding matches of the group.
It is going to be an interesting spectacle though. Two giants of not just West Africa but the whole of the continent face up in tricky positions, as they attempt to change course and recreate the glories of the past, in a game that has not been played since a friendly in 2009. Ivory Coast won 2-1 at that day, but both now finds themselves at a crossroads, determine to ensure that this generation of national football is more successful than the last.
By Sam Crocker (@sam_crock)