With the undesirable smell of the probable drawing of lots hanging in the air if these sides draw, the dog-eat-dog nature of this game implies that one of these teams will be packing their bags and, in a few days’ time, reading Sandals For Goalposts’ match previews scratching their head over what-ifs rather than to gain an unrivalled tactical insight into their opponents.
Of course, the two teams met twice in qualification, with Cameroon’s 4-1 thumping of Ivory Coast in Yaounde going some way to regaining the hearts and minds of their nation after their World Cup omnishambles. On that unforgettable day, the Ivory Coast defence would be severely troubled by Cameroon’s combination of rapidity and lethality in attack, chiefly by the duo of Vincent Aboubakar and Clinton N’Jie.
That match probably signalled the end of Sol Bamba’s international football career, under the tenure of Herve Renard at least. Lamine Kone, Bamba’s partner on the day, and the diminutive left back Arthur Boka have also not made this AFCON squad, while Tupac doppelganger Boubacar Barry now resides on the bench.
Indeed, the only surviving member of the defence from that game is the never-ending energy of Serge Aurier. While Kolo Toure has been reinstated for his experience, Renard’s bid to reconstruct the defence has a more glowing look with the highly rated Eric Bailly and Wilfried Kanon making the remainder of Renard’s preferred back four or – as he has deployed for much of this tournament – a back three.
Still, that backline will have to be vigilant of Cameroon’s pace throughout attack, not to mention being wary of their positioning in their recently unveiled 3-5-2 system. Cameroon will have the mental edge after the 4-1 win in Yaounde but, despite some drab football in the last decade, the Indomitable Lions have always had an excellent record in Yaounde – they haven’t lost in a home competitive game since October 1998. N’Jie, undoubtedly the Man of the Match in Yaounde, may finally be unleashed after surprisingly not being involved so far in this tournament.
With Yaya Toure not in full rhythm due to a knock he has carried into the tournament, he and his team-mates will need to be sharper and more penetrative in possession than they have been so far if they are to unlock the Cameroon defence. A more open game may just work in their favour in terms of space given to them, but as always is the case with the Ivory Coast, it’s a matter of whether they can keep the back door shut.
The last meeting between these sides came in the final match day of AFCON 2015 qualifying, when pre-game Cameroon had sealed their qualification and Ivory Coast only needed a draw to book them team. Controversially, with the scoreline 0-0 and the game petering out, Ivory Coast were content passing the ball along their backline to ensure their way through, and Cameroon made little effort to pressurise them.
Such niceties are unlikely to happen this time around. It’s now every man for himself.