Five of the continent’s six teams have played so far and only one, Ghana, can feel confident about reaching the second round.
Cameroon should be one of Africa’s strongest teams but they were embarrassingly poor tonight against a Japanese side that didn’t look much better.
The standard of many of the early games has not been great, but for 45 minutes this Group E encounter between Japan and Cameroon threatened to plumb new depths.
It was enlivened, briefly, by Keisuke Honda’s 42nd minute goal but even that owed much to the Cameroonian defense’s inability to deal with a simple cross.
Cameroon improved in the second half, although it would have been hard for them to have been any worse.
They looked menacing whenever Benoit Assou-Ekotto charged forward from left-back, but it happened too rarely and his end product was too haphazard.
Star striker Samuel Eto’o scurried and hurried to little effect. And, as so often in Cameroon’s big matches, he was a pale shadow of the player whose performances for Inter Milan and Barcelona have been so impressive in recent years.
Cameroon coach Paul le Guen insisted on playing Eto’o on the right, one of several curious tactical decisions.
The Frenchman dropped his goalkeeper, Idriss Kameni – one of Africa’s best – as well as the Arsenal midfielder Alex Song. Kameni’s replacement, Hamidou Souleymanou, hardly inspired confidence at the back, spilling a couple of early crosses. Song’s absence was felt even more strongly. Japan’s five-man midfield dominated a Song-less Cameroon.
It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that Cameroon began to threaten.
Stephane Mbia’s long-range effort crashed against the crossbar, with Eiji Kawashima in the Japanese goal grasping at thin air. Pierre Webo almost snatched a point in stoppage time, but his side-footed volley from six yards out was palmed away by Kawashima.
The Indomitable Lions will have to do something spectacular to rescue their World Cup campaign. They will have to get a result against group favorites the Netherlands (which beat Denmark 2-0 today), a task that on this showing looks well beyond them.
For Japan, celebrating their first World Cup win on foreign soil, there is the realization that a win against a Danish side who disappointed against the Dutch will almost certainly see them reach the second round.
Japan’s coach, Takeshi Okada, has been much-mocked for suggesting that his team could reach the semi-finals. In truth, he would be ecstatic with a second round appearance – a repeat of their performance in 2002 when they co-hosted the World Cup.
After tonight, that dream is not so far away.
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