Croatia faced Cameroon for the first time in their history, in a match with everything at stake. Having both lost their opening game – Croatia with some misfortune to hosts Brazil and Cameroon with no adventure to Mexico - neither team could afford to lose again, as that would guarantee an early exit; even a draw would leave them in severe difficulty in Group A. It was win or bust.
Cameroon made two changes from their previous game, Vincent Aboubakar replacing an unfit Samuel Eto'o and Schalke's Joel Matip coming into the midfield with Stephane Mbia dropping in at right-back (the team reverted to type at half-time, Mbia moving into midfield while substitute Dany Nounkeu – who started against Mexico - took over at right-back).
Croatia brought in three new faces: the previously suspended Mario Mandzukic up front, creator Sammir in midfield and the attacking Danijel Pranjic at left-back, replacing the otherwise impressive Sime Vrsaljko.
The first quarter of an hour was notable for both sides attacking down the right flank – and indeed that was where Croatia's opening goal originated, Ivan Perisic setting up Ivica Olic for a tap-in after Darijo Srna had ventured forward from full-back.
But for Cameroon shooting from distance and Perisic and Olic swapping flanks, the rest of the half was uneventful – until Alex Song emulated Uncle Rigobert with a needless red card. Digging his elbow into the back of Mandzukic, Song received his marching orders five minutes before half-time, having previously led the field in ball recoveries and been the only player to create multiple scoring chances.
It was inevitable that the Africans' midfield would then struggle to cope with the dual forces of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric – so inevitable, in fact, the pair's influence could already be seen to grow in the brief period between Song's sending-off and the interval.
By full-time the freedom Song's absence had given them was even more obvious. Rakitic and Modric completed 27 passes between them in the 40 minutes before the red card, and 79 in the rest of the game.
Half-time, then, and Cameroon had a mountain to climb. So far, though, they had mostly defended stoutly, making 19 clearances (to Croatia's 9). They'd also committed three times as many fouls as their opponents.
Then the wheels came off. Charles Itandje's goal-kick only reached Perisic on the halfway line, who punished the keeper by collecting the ball, outpacing substitute Nounkeu (on the pitch for a matter of minutes) and ignoring Mandzukic's screams for a cross to instead slot the ball home, Itandje having made life even easier for him by going down very early. Perisic was a threat all night, to the extent he was the most fouled player in the match – always a compliment, albeit a painful one.
Croatia would make the score 3-0 through a set-piece, Mandzukic heading home a corner defended with appalling nonchalance by Cameroon. It wasn't an isolated example: they were extremely vulnerable at every corner.
With the midfield area essentially Croatia's sandbox, their full-backs were given licence to get forward at every opportunity. Srna ended the match having made more passes in the attacking third than any other player bar the dynamic duo, Modric and Rakitic.
A fourth Croatia goal was always on the cards. Mandzukic, lazily played onside, had an even easier finish than for his headed goal, tapping into an empty net after Itandje parried Eduardo's tame shot into his path. Cameroon had become increasingly ill-disciplined. In the dying minutes, Benoit Assou-Ekotto went nose-to-nose with team-mate Benjamin Moukandjo, who pushed him away.
Moukandjo had actually been one of the very, very few positives for Cameroon. Before Croatia took control of the game with their man advantage, he had led in attacking third passes, attempted take-ons and ball recoveries. He also won 3 free-kicks in very dangerous areas.
The game ended 4-0 with Croatia happy and Cameroon in shambolic disarray. The Indomitable Lions were the first team to be knocked out of the last World Cup in 2010, and had this Group A match preceded Group B's (as you'd expect), they would have repeated that feat in Brazil. They've scored zero goals in their two matches, and no surprise: from 30 shots across the two, they've only hit 3 on target.
As for Croatia, the victory was an easy one thanks to Song's idiotic red card, but they did look dangerous in all areas of the pitch: Perisic impressed on one wing with Olic industrious on the other, Mandzukic offered a goalscoring threat far superior to that of Nikica Jelavic, and Rakitic and Modric were creative in the middle.
One thing they will have to improve on, however, is their tackling. In this game the Croatians failed with no fewer than half of their attempted tackles – many coming on the right but also in central midfield, where they choose to field two playmakers instead of ball-winners. Against better opposition, this may cost them.
Facts and figures
- Croatia scored 4 goals in a World Cup game for the first time.
- There have only been 6 occasions in 116 World Cup games involving African teams where the African side have conceded 4+ goals, but Cameroon are responsible for 3 of them.
- Cameroon are the first team to lose 6 successive World Cup games since El Salvador in 1982.
- Mario Mandžukić is the first Croatia player to score a brace in World Cup history.
- Cameroon have kept 1 clean sheet in their last 18 World Cup games.
- Cameroon had only 1 shot (17) fewer than Croatia (18) in this game but only 2 were on target.
- Cameroon have had more shots than any other team at World Cup 2014 (30) but are yet to score.
- Alex Song picked up Cameroon’s 8th red card in their World Cup history.
- His relative Rigobert Song is one of only 2 players (along with Zinedine Zidane) to be sent off twice at World Cups, meaning the Song family is responsible for 3 of Cameroon’s 8 reds.
- 15 of the 20 games at the 2014 World Cup have seen 3 or more goals.