By Jay Mwamba
A day after Ireland’s dramatic draw with Germany, Cameroon struggled to subdue Saudi Arabia, 1-0, in front of 52,000 fans in Saitama.
The “Indomitable Lions” won for the first time in the World Cup finals since edging Colombia 2-1 in extra time at Italia ’90.
But other than confirm the Saudis’ elimination from the tournament, the margin of victory Thursday served only to further complicate the tight competition in Group E, while leaving Cameroon with the task of defeating Germany to have a realistic chance of advancing to the Round of 16.
Saudi coach Nasser Al-Johar, dubbed “Mr. Fixit” back home, had rang the changes going into the match, erecting a five-man defensive wall in front of goalie Mohammed Al-Deayea in an attempt to avoid a repeat of the 8-0 humiliation inflicted by Germany.
It worked to an extent as the African and Olympic champions were kept off the scoreboard, despite two disallowed goals in the first half, until Samuel Eto’o’s brilliant strike in the 65th minute.
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The winner followed a replay of the penetrating move that led to Cameroon’s goal against Ireland in Niigata on June 1.
It started with the Chelsea-bound Geremi Njitap on the right releasing Eto’o. The exciting youngster sped past his marker and beat Al-Deayea from close range.
Surprisingly enough, the goal did not ignite another major offensive from the Cameroonians, who, as at the same stage in the tussle with the Irish, were slowly running out of gas.
Most of their energies had been expended in a blistering first half that, two disallowed goals aside, yielded nothing once Norwegian referee Hauge Terje had controversially denied them a first-half penalty for a foul on the dangerous Eto’o.
Trying to borrow a leaf from his home country’s playbook, Cameroon’s German-born coach, Winnie Sch’fer, had made a slight adjustment to the side that had tied 1-1 with Ireland and opted for an ‘rial assault.
In came the lively little Daniel Ngom Kome on the right side of midfield and out went Salomon Olembe. Eto’o was also moved left from the right flank to provide deep crosses for Patrick Mboma in the center.
But the gaps and lack of height in the Saudi defense that had been so devastatingly exploited by the Germans in the Sapporo Dome had been plugged by coach Al-Johar.
The two headers that Mboma and Arsenal midfielder Lauren were able to direct into the net were both waved off by Terje.
Cameroon had a more incisive edge to their attack after half time when Olembe returned for Ngom Kome and Eto’o moved back to the right. Lauren and the giant defender Raymond Kalla both threatened to break the deadlock before Eto’o struck.
It wasn’t all one-way though. Without a pulse offensively against the Germans, Saudi Arabia had its moments this time.
Their best chance came in the ninth minute when lone forward Obeid Al-Dossary — later stretchered off with a knee injury — put a free header over the bar.
Nawaf Al-Temyat nearly grabbed a stunning equalizer in the 80th minute but just missed with a stupendous 40-yard volley.
More than anything, the result was a mere psychological boost for the Lions with Germany ominously looming ahead.
“It was important that we won. But we have one problem — we can’t score in front of goal,” said Sch’fer, pointing out his team’s main fault.
“If we could have scored in the first few minutes, then it would have been a different story. But what was important was that my team kept going. Our last 15 minutes and the goal were very positive for our mental belief.”
Mick McCarthy, an interested third party at the game, was impressed with the Saudi effort.
“The Saudis showed here that they were much more like the team I watched beat Iran and top their [qualifying] group, so if anyone believes they can start packing for [the second round], then they better think again,” he warned ahead of yesterday’s encounter in Yokohama.
Cameroon: Alioum Boukar, Bill Tchato, Rigobert Song, Raymond Kalla, Lauren Etame Mayer, Pierre Wome (Pierre Njanka 84), Geremi Njitap, Marc-Vivien Foe, Daniel Ngom Kome (Salomon Olembe 46), Samuel Etoo, Patrick Mboma (Pius Ndiefi 74).
Saudi Arabia: Mohammed Al Deayea, Mohammed Al Jahani, Redha Tukar, Abdullah Sulaiman Zubromawi (Abdullah Jumaan Al Dosary 72), Fouzi Al Shehri, Hussein Sulimani, Ibrahim Al Shahrani, Abdulaziz Al Khathran (Mohammed Noor 87), Abdullah Alwaked Al Shahrani, Nawaf Al Temyat, Obeid Al Dossary (Al Hassan Al Yami 35).