After Brazil and Mexico played out a 0-0 draw leaving both with four points, Croatia and Cameroon has become an even more important fixture, especially for Croatia who have already played Brazil and thus gotten their toughest group match out of the way. Should Croatia beat Cameroon by anything less than three goals, it would set things up for a very interesting Croatia-Mexico match, with only a win good enough for the Europeans.
For Cameroon, the situation looks bleak, as they need to get something from their game against the hosts to have a chance of progressing from the group. For a side that could only manage one shot on target against Mexico and less than 40% possession, it might be time to start playing for pride. Further adding to Cameroon’s misery is that Samuel Eto’o, who looked lively and involved both with his offensive movement and link up play against Mexico, will miss the Croatia match with a knee injury. Although the heat and humidity of Manaus should favor the African side, Croatia’s sheer quality, especially in midfield and attack should be too much for them.
Croatia should rue their missed opportunity to gain something out of the game against Brazil, conceding to a soft shot from distance, a soft penalty that should have been saved, and finally once more when chasing the game in the 91st minute. But they can take heart from the fact that for long periods of time they matched Brazil in midfield and offensively, with 11 shots to Brazil’s 14 and three on target as opposed to the South American’s six. Essentially then it should be more of the same, but at a slightly higher level due to the return of striker Mario Mandzukic from suspension.
The formation will probably remain 4-2-3-1, with two excellent central midfielders in Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic controlling the game from midfield. The advanced midfielders who should play behind Mandzukic are interesting because the wide players, Ivica Olic and Ivan Perisic, are essentially converted forwards and Mateo Kovacic is an odd player in the number 10 position. Both Modric and Rakitic essentially play all the ambitious passes, both behind the defence and to the flanks, and recycle possession and so Kovacic basically has no purpose, he only passed the ball 17 times, mostly in the centre of the pitch and mostly short and back to the more elegant midfielders behind him. Cameroon showed a number of defensive weaknesses against Mexico, but what was most apparent was space behind the left-back Assou-Ekotto and an inability to deal with high balls into the box. This could tempt Croatia coach Nilo Kovac into playing both Nikita Jelavic and Mandzukic and try and overload the two Cameroon centre backs.
Rakitic and Modric were both superb against Brazil, the latter especially, completing 51 passes and creating four chances. Perisic was his most favoured forward target, Modric passing to the winger eight times trying to get behind Brazil’s advanced full backs to play balls into the box at pace and a similar plan is likely to be employed against Cameroon. The difference however, is that Croatia will have a lot more of the ball and a lot more time to play against a less gifted central midfield of Stephane Mbia and Alex Song. So the crossing could be varied with balls into the channels for Mandzukic to run into and hold up while Olic and Perisic use their forward instincts to get into the box.
Cameroon suffer from the same problem as a lot of other African sides with a smattering of excellent players paired with mostly serviceable teammates. It has been most evident with Yaya Toure of the Ivory Coast over the years, with the midfielder used to playing a defensive role with his club (sometimes even playing at centre back in Barcelona), but having to be more creative with his country simply because of the lack of quality of his teammates.
Alex Song suffers much the same problem with Cameroon. Used in a very limited destroyer or centre back role with Barcelona, he has to almost perform two jobs for Cameroon, supporting his midfielders and playing passes to his forwards, while simultaneously being expected to mark the opponent’s midfield and breaking up play. It is an impossible role, and against Mexico Cameroon were exceptionally poor defensively because Song offered no support to his centre backs and also did not track Mexico’s midfielders breaking into space. Alternatively, Song did create the joint most chances for Cameroon along with Benoit Assou-Ekotto, but if he abandons his defensive duties against Croatia’s midfield Cameroon will be torn apart.
Cameroon’s lack of midfielders accomplished in possession will also hurt them, because Croatia’s main weakness is that their midfield lacks steel without the ball. Although Modric and Rakitic are experienced enough to take up good positions without the ball, they are not overly physical, and can be bypassed easily, while Croatia’s other three midfielders are basically forwards with poor defensive awareness. However Cameroon simply do not have a midfielder capable of reliably recycling possession and holding on to the ball for long enough to exploit this.
Because the side sits so deep, whoever the forward will be in Cameroon’s 4-5-1 (most likely (Pierre Webo, although Cameroon brought on a second striker when chasing the game against Mexico) will often be outnumbered unable to do any damage to the opposition. With Eto’o this was less of a problem because he is a gifted enough player to drop deep and get other players involved, but Webo at 32 is far less effective outside of the penalty area.
While Cameroon will mostly be forced to defend deep, their main threat could come through the left hand side, where Assou Ekotto and Eric Choupo Moting combined well against Mexico to put some dangerous balls into the box. However Cameroon are unlikely to be strong enough to gain anything against a strong Croatia side.