Cameroon vs. Croatia: 50-50 Challenge
Our expert bloggers will give their thoughts ahead of each game, so as Cameroon take on Croatia in Group A, Salim Masoud Said (Cameroon) and Aleks Holiga (Croatia) are your guides.
What's at stake?
Salim Masoud Said: The loss in their opening game versus Mexico added with a loss in this match will equal Cameroon picking up the demoralising tag of being the first side to bow out of the tournament.
That's not the only tag they seek to sidestep -- only one win since the 1990 World Cup finals is a shocking record for a country that has, since the obscurity of 1990, had established players in some of Europe's top leagues at their disposal. A likely loss against Brazil means this match represents the last realistic opportunity for them to pick up points.
Aleks Holiga: Up until this year, Croatia have never played against a team from sub-Saharan Africa. Their first came in the run-up for the World Cup against Mali (2-1) -- that wasn't too demanding, but the Indomitable Lions should prove a stronger opposition for the Vatreni.
After a decent display in a controversial defeat to Brazil, Croatia are now very eager to bounce right back. Head coach Niko Kovac and his players seem to have cooled off from their fuming about the referee's mistakes in that match and should now be fully focused on Cameroon. They know how important it is: With a convincing win, they could gain an advantage over Mexico (provided, of course that Miguel Herrera's team lose to Brazil) and go into their final group game needing only a point to qualify for the knockout round.
SS: Benjamin Moukandjo. Confronted with the novelty of a 3-5-2 system in the defeat to Mexico, Moukandjo transformed from a winger to a defensive wing-back as he constantly retreated to track the runs of Mexico wing-back Miguel Layun.
That was admirable for a player whose defensive contribution hasn't always been the best, but in the end, he became too occupied with the defensive side and failed to showcase his attacking game. He should be facing a more conventional system against Croatia and an unconvincing defender in Sime Vrsaljko. He will be hoping to showcase his crowd-warming flair that is a source of creativity for Cameroon.
AH: Mario Mandzukic is back into the team, having missed the World Cup opener because of a one-match suspension. His presence can do wonders for Croatia, even if he doesn't score himself. Mandzukic taunts the opposition defence with his constant movement, opening space for others. He's also a constant threat in the air, and his pressing on the ball proved decisive for Croatia on a number of previous occasions. His alternate, Nikica Jelavic, had a rather poor game against Brazil, and many fans were left wondering how it would have looked if "Mandzo" was there instead. Now it's time to show them.
SS: Ivan Rakitic. Cameroon will not only look at Ivan Rakitic and daydream about the possibilities if they themselves had a creative midfielder of such talent, but also with fear emitting from their eyes.
One of Europe's distinguished midfielders last season, a move to Barcelona has duly materialised this week for Rakitic. This game could be over by halftime if Cameroon afford him the same amount of space they did with Mexico's Giovani dos Santos, who breached the pocket of space between Cameroon's midfield and defence with alarming regularity.
AH: I can honestly say I don't see any name on Cameroon's team sheet that Croatia should be afraid of -- especially now that their star man Samuel Eto'o is reportedly out with an injury. Cameroon are an unpredictable side, but what they showed in the game against Mexico didn't amount to much. The local media are more worried about the climate conditions in Manaus, where the game is played: The heat and the humidity could hamper Croatia's energy and slow down the transition, so there are doubts whether the team can be at their best or not. If I had to pinpoint one Cameroon player as the potential danger, then it would be whoever replaces Eto'o up front. Vincent Aboubakar looks like a very promising striker.
SS: Stephane Mbia vs. Ivan Rakitic. The duo were part of Sevilla's Europa League triumph, but they will face off in this match's midfield duel.
Croatia's creative, playmaking midfield nucleus of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Rakitic should see them command possession and use the ball intelligently. But there were signs against Brazil that the trio did not enjoy the physicality of midfield battles, particularly Rakitic.
If Cameroon's midfielders have a strength, then it's their fearsome tacklers through the middle. Stephane Mbia is the most mobile player in the Cameroon's midfield three, and he will look to harass and retrieve the ball from the Croatia midfield, initiating counter-attacks and joining them.
AH: Ivan Rakitic will meet his Sevilla teammate Stephane Mbia on the pitch, but this time they'll be (perhaps direct) opponents in midfield. Mbia was probably the best Cameroon performer in that match against Mexico, and he certainly is a quality player. However, his role for the national team seems a bit more attacking than in Sevilla, while he really shouldn't be the kind of guy you rely on for creativity. As for Rakitic, he could well play in a more advanced midfield position this time and Mbia could be in charge of stopping him. The two players know each other well, and we're up for some fascinating duels.
SS: Mario Mandzukic's return and a Croatian midfield bursting with playmakers will see them comfortably beat Cameroon. 3-0 win to the Croats.
AH: Croatia are a much better team, and they will also be really fired up after the Brazil defeat. The Vatreni should win this, say 2-0.