After shrugging off criticism from Roger Milla and deciding not to skip the World Cup, Samuel Eto’o will get his first chance Monday against a struggling Japan lineup to prove that he can produce his best football for Cameroon.
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The Indomitable Lions’ preparations have been overshadowed by a nasty spat between Eto’o and Cameroon great Milla, who questioned the Inter Milan striker’s performances for the national team.
Eto’o, who is Cameroon’s all-time leading international scorer with 42 goals, threatened he’d miss the marquee event, but decided the first World Cup in Africa was too important to skip.
And he has the full support of Cameroon coach Paul Le Guen.
"He is my captain, a great player, one of the best players in the world and he wants to do well," said Le Guen, adding that Eto’o "is fit, he is ready to fight and be a good captain for us during this World Cup."
Eto’o didn’t lead from the front in the recent warmup matches. After getting sent off in the 3-1 loss to Portugal for picking up a second booking, his missed the 4-3 loss to Serbia.
Those two losses and three draws mean Cameroon hasn’t registered a win in five matches, despite a glut of talent including Arsenal midfielder Alex Song, Tottenham defenders Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Sebastien Bassong and Mallorca striker Pierre Webo.
Against Japan, Le Guen has plenty of offensive firepower, but is wary of a fast Japanese attack against his defensive line that has leaked seven goals in the last two matches.
"I have watched many videos of Japanese football over and over, and I know their strongest weapon is that they have very swift attackers," Le Guen said. "We’ve worked very hard to deal with that and as concerns Monday’s match, I’m full of confidence."
While Cameroon’s form hasn’t been outstanding, Japan’s has been worse.
The Japanese have recorded four consecutive loses in the run up to the tournament, scoring just one goal in that stretch as coach Takeshi Okada has consistently tinkered with his lineup in a bid to find the best balance.
Okada downplayed concerns over his team’s recent scoring troubles, saying "goals are always an issue for every team." He also brushed aside criticism that his squad is too defensive-minded, and promised Japan would not sit back against Cameroon.
"I never told them (the players) to concentrate on defense against Cameroon – I never said that," Okada said. "We are not focusing only on defense, we will be very proactive and positive in the attack as well."
While Le Guen is worried about Japan’s pace up front, Japan midfielder Junichi Inamoto said the Asian side is sure to keep an eye on Eto’o. But Inamoto stressed Japan doesn’t have the luxury of being able to just focus on one player.
"Cameroon has a lot of good players, not only Eto’o – there’s Song, there’s Webo – they’re good attacking players, fast and physical, and so we have to protect good and after that we have to take the ball and have a good counter," Inamoto said.
Okada, however, seemed unsure of just how he plans to handle Eto’o, saying Japan wouldn’t focus on the Inter Milan striker – only to add in the same sentence that "we would like to have not only one player from our team but a few or several players cover him."
Cameroon has never regained the form that inspired a run to the 1990 World Cup quarterfinals, when the then 38-year-old Milla’s Indomitable Lions became the first African team to reach that stage of the global event.
Japan reached the second round when it co-hosted the 2002 edition with South Korea but has never won a World Cup match on foreign soil. The Japanese will be making their fourth straight appearance in the tournament, and are eager to get off to a good start in a group that also includes the Netherlands and Denmark.
Japan had a 1-0 lead over Australia deep into its first game at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but conceded three late goals and its campaign never recovered.
"We have to win. The first game is very important, like a final," Inamoto said. "So if you get a point – sure three points is much better – because the next game is against Holland, so it’s a very, very big match."