Both Mexico and Cameroon will be eager to put their various problems leading up to the World Cup behind them when they face off in their opening game of the competition in Natal.
For Mexico, the only positive thing to say about their qualifying campaign was that it eventually ended with their tickets being booked to Brazil. Impressive achievements at senior and youth level since 2010 had fuelled hope that a fine generation of talent would go onto finally lead the country to the last eight of the World Cup after having exited in the second round of the last five editions.
But simply getting there proved an almighty ordeal. It required four coaches, a miraculous goal form Raul Jimenez, a helping hand from bitter foes the United States and finally a playoff win over New Zealand to secure qualification. Things have hardly been smooth in the buildup to the tournament, either, although this time through mere cruel fortune. Important midfielders Juan Carlos Medina and Luis Montes have both been ruled out of the World Cup through injury.
Coach Miguel Herrera has had little time to build the cohesion between his players and finalize his starting lineup ahead of the opening game. The former Club America coach had seen precious little of Mexico’s Europe-based players before getting the squad together prior to traveling to Brazil, and has had to integrate them quickly to those based in LIGA MX, as well as adapting them to his 3-5-2 formation.
As it is, the team is likely to be based heavily around players based at home. Real Sociedad striker Carlos Vela has continued his self-imposed international exile, while Javier Hernandez looks set to pay for his lack of playing time for Manchester United and poor showings for Mexico with a place on the bench. Cruz Azul’s Jose Corona will likely the nod over France-based Guillermo Ochoa in goal.
The one confirmed starter from long ago has been Rafa Marquez. The 35-year-old was brought out of exile late last year and will captain the side from the center of a three-man defense. His performances will be vital to Mexico’s chances. The former Barcelona man’s range of passing is key to starting attacks and getting the ball out to the side’s wing-backs, but his lack of pace will have to be carefully protected. With a team that will look to play on the front foot under Herrera, that will be easier said than done. It is surprising then that Herrera looks set to go with the equally creaking center-back Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez, whose vulnerability was particularly noticeable in last year’s Confederations Cup.
Perhaps to compensate, Herrera may temper the attacking nature of his midfield, with the all-rounder Hector Herrera and versatile Andres Guardado alongside holder Jose Juan Vazquez. Still, there remains reason to think Mexico can cause problems going forward. Giovani dos Santos should bring more balance to the front two alongside the lethal Oribe Peralta and the Villarreal man has a habit of delivering at major tournaments for his country.
Perhaps the best news for Mexico is that their World Cup campaign will start against a team who have endured even greater pre-tournament turmoil. For Cameroon it is an all-too familiar story. The country’s national team has been beset by both problems within the squad and with the Cameroon Football Federation in recent years. Samuel Eto’o has been at the forefront of these issues and has gone in and out of international retirement before returning to the fold last year to help Cameroon get through the final round of qualifying against Tunisia. Problems again arose on the eve of the tournament when Cameroon’s flight to Brazil was delayed by a day after a row over bonuses to be paid from the Federation.
When it comes to matter on the pitch, Eto’o remains key. The 33-year-old had a difficult season with Chelsea in the Premier League, but still managed to get into double figures in goals in all competitions. He may struggle to get adequate service for his country, however. Cameroon lack a natural creative midfielder, with Alex Song having much responsibility to step out of his more restricted role for Barcelona.
A central defense led by the talented Nicolas N’Koulou has the ability to frustrate Mexico for long spells, especially if El Tri are as lacking in creativity as they were in a recent 1-0 defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is, however, reason to think that Mexico will have enough going forward to break through Cameroon’s resistance and get a win that is vital to its hopes of making the last-16, with matches to come against Brazil and Croatia.
Prediction: Mexico 2-1 Cameroon
When and where: The World Cup Group A match will kick off from the Estadio das Dunas in Natal at noon ET.