How do two sides susceptible to meltdowns interact? Here’s how. In the end, a thrilling draw that doesn’t really suit either side with little pattern, enormous drama, and some exceptional goals.
Despite the fact that Cameroon has lost eight of its last eight World Cup games and Serbia has won nine of its last 11, these two are some of the greatest underachievers in the last three decades. They probably won’t make it to the last 16, but at least they had some fun.
The buildup for two teams who always embrace chaos didn’t go without complication at Al Janoub on Monday, not the traffic, not the security. The Internazionale goalkeeper André Onana was expelled from the game squad on the morning of the match, in an echo of the golden age of the Lions.
As coaches, Joseph-Antoine Bell and Thomas N’Kono alternated between being proactive and line-based 30 to 35 years ago. For an indiscreet interview in a French newspaper, Bell was terminated on the evening of Cameroon’s World Cup victory over Argentina, so late that N’Kono’s wife, who went shopping rather than watch her husband sit on the bench at San Siro, only found out that he had played that evening.
During Song’s first World Cup in 1994, there were so many goalkeeping incidents that N’Kono, Bell and Songo’o, the third-choice keeper, all played a game each to make up the team’s goalkeeping depth in each group match. As a result of Bell and N’Kono’s exceptional goalkeeping ability and Songo’o’s good play, the selection of Devis Epassy of Saudi Arabian club Abha came about because Song prefers “traditional” goalkeeping, and Onana strongly advocates passing the ball out from the back.
A decade of playing in French lower leagues before he broke through with OFI of Crete doesn’t seem like a high-class alternative – nor, in my opinion, did Epassy’s performances suggest a high-class alternative.
Initially, this appeared to be a classic Serbian collapse. It was a defensive struggle in the first half of their opener against Brazil, even with Filip Kostic injured and doubts regarding the fitness of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dusan Vlahovic, before they were overrun in the second half.
A few minutes into the game, Serbia started well following Mitrovic’s hit of the post and a flick-on from Nicolas N’Koulou that went just wide. However, Serbia fell behind after 29 minutes with a goal by Jean-Charles Castelletto. It felt like a tired script: promise and disappointment.
A couple of goals from Strahinja Pavlovic and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic in first-half injury time turned the game Serbia’s way. In the end, Mitrovic’s goal, rolling in after Cameroon had given up from a throw, seemed to indicate there may be some truth to the claims that this is a new, mentally resilient Serbia under Dragan Stojkovic.
False. The arrival of Al Nassr striker Rami Mahmoud had turned the game around for Song after he was reluctant to deploy both Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Vincent Aboubakar, who had been the top scorer at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year. With an audacious scoop, he beat 6ft 9in Serbia keeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic. He squared for Choupo-Moting to equalize with another counter down the right.
At that point, 23 minutes remained before the game ended. Last quarter was a chance for both sides. It is probably more suited to Cameroon than Serbia because the shapes disintegrated. There were persistent pacings on Stojkovic’s technical area, with repetitive arms stretching out and repeated clutchings on his head.
Mitrovic was blocked once by Epassy, but he was always panicking when the ball was near him. As well as stopping the rot, both sides have had the misfortune of suffering injury just at the wrong time. While Cameroon may ponder yet another goalkeeping controversy, Serbia may ponder yet another injury controversy.
Brazil and Switzerland will probably make it through, but beyond that, we have no idea.