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May 30, 2014

Cameroon squad taking shape after Paraguay loss

Cameroon coach Volker Finke outlined four specific objectives during his sides build-up prior to the World Cup: boosting morale, providing game time to those lurking on the periphery of the squad, nurturing team chemistry -- particularly on the pitch -- and testing different formations.

Although morale dipped slightly -- felt more so by the Cameroonian public -- after last night's 2-1 defeat to Paraguay, it was a useful exercise in allowing Finke to streamline his side before the deadline to submit his final 23-man squad on June 2. Thus, he fielded a side of World Cup absentees and those plucked from the rubble of mediocrity -- just three players in the starting XI had more than 10 caps.

Unaided by injuries to key players, the Indomitable Lions were once again forced to field those sweating over whether their World Cup dreams will become reality, second-stringers and the odd cemented starter -- just three of the latter, in fact, Charles Itandje, Nicolas N'Koulou and Eyong Enoh.

Finke opted for the 4-3-3 system that he usually deploys but, still searching for adequate, central creativity to knit together the midfield and forward line, tweaked the three-man midfield slightly. Lens' diminutive Edgar Salli, a winger by trade but adept through the middle, was positioned just ahead of the defensive midfield pair of Raoul Loe and Enoh. Gaetan Bong, little more than a squad player for both the national team and club side Olympiakos, came in to deliver his case for the hotly contested left-back spot, which Benoit Assou-Ekotto occupies as first choice.

The end result was, predictably, an exacerbated fusion of the problems apparent in a full-strength Cameroon team. Put simply, there was a lack of coordination in the back line and imagination in midfield.

Perspective is needed, of course. This was largely an experimental lineup; chemistry can only be truly determined once the team is close to full strength. Still, players can be judged on a case-by-case basis.

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By that judgement, only the long-legged Joel Matip was able to give a commendable account of himself -- as was the case in Cameroon's 2-0 victory over Macedonia. It may be too late for the Schalke defender to force Finke into a late defensive reshuffle, splitting the defensive core of Nicolas N'Koulou and Aurelien Chedjou, but not unthinkable given the manager's open-mindedness. Tall, comfortable on the ball and an excellent reader of the game, Matip is, without a shadow of the doubt, the most in-form Cameroonian centre-back over the past 12 months.

The major disappointment has been the lack of proactiveness by those on the edges of the squad to bulldoze their way into the side during the past two games. Few players have been as disappointing as Mohamadou Idrissou. When the rangy striker missed a penalty late on that would have leveled the score, it was a missed opportunity to put a positive spin on the result. What's more, that penalty miss may have been the moment the 34-year-old sealed his exclusion from the final squad, reaffirming the unanimous public opinion that he shouldn't be anywhere near the team.

Idrissou has consistently proved to be uninspiring and ineffective, unable to offer the hold-up play that could excuse his record of six goals in 39 caps. His inclusion has been justifiable because of his extensive tournament experience and a good season at club level with Kaiserslautern, but when he offers so little it's hard to fathom him being picked over younger members -- such as, Fabrice Olinga, who could be the youngest player at the World Cup -- raw as they may be.

On the surface, it is an incriminating defeat against a very inexperienced side that illustrated the over-reliance on Samuel Eto'o and Alex Song. But scratch beneath the surface, factoring in the injuries to those in the starting XI and the experimentation of the fringe players, and Finke now has a clearer picture of the players that he will be taking to Brazil. Bigger names are expected to be back for the friendly against Germany on Sunday, the ultimate test before the World Cup.