A tale of two strikers may be the story in Manaus on Wednesday when a Croatia side reinforced by Mario Mandzukic face a Cameroon side who may yet call on Chelsea’s Samuel Eto’o in a must-win Group A match.
Neither side has had much to smile about in Brazil so far: Croatia’s opening loss to Brazil was followed by the publication of photos of several of their players naked in a swimming pool, leading to a media blackout by the squad.
As for Cameroon, doubts over Eto’o’s fitness have dominated their preparations, though he may yet feature as a substitute.
Eto’o missed two days’ training earlier this week and had tweeted that he would miss the game only to cloud the issue on the eve of the match at the Arena Amazonias.
Though he had ice strapped to his right knee before the squad’s final training session, he refused to rule himself out, saying: “I cannot give you a satisfactory answer, even though I might already know whether or not I'm going to be able to play."
Croatia: Group A team profile
Croatia: Group A team profile
1/4 How they qualified
Croatia fell back after an impressive start to their World Cup qualifying campaign. A stuttering climax saw them sneak into second spot by two points. Five wins and a draw from their opening six matches appeared to have the Balkan team well-placed to claim an automatic berth as group winners. But one point from an available twelve in their next four matches – including defeats both home and away by Scotland - saw Igor Stimac’s men fall nine points short of Belgium in top spot. Stimac was later relieved of his duties before Croatia faced Iceland across two legs to determine which nation would qualify for the World Cup. Despite failing to break down 10-man Iceland in a stalemate away from home, the Croats mustered a 2-0 victory in the return leg to secure their passage to next summer’s tournament.
Niko Kovac is a former Croatia international and he represented his country at various major tournaments across the last decade before he retired in 2009 calling for priority to be placed on youth over experience. Despite only stepping in to see Croatia through the World Cup play-off double-header against Iceland in November, many supporters saw the 42-year-old as the true mastermind of the nation’s qualification to the World Cup in Brazil. Kovac was appointed to the position on October 16 after his predecessor Igor Stimac was sacked following a disappointing campaign. Indeed, Croatia laboured towards a decisive play-off rather than forcing a battle for the automatic berth with eventual group-winners Belgium.
3/4 Star player
Mario Mandzukic’s attitude has been called into question on more than one occasion across his playing career but his ability to convert chances cannot be questioned. Mandzukic complements his strength in aerial battles with an accomplished right foot. Despite Croatia’s failure to advance past the groups stages at Euro 2012, the 27-year-old was the tournament’s joint top scorer with three goals. After opening the scoring in Croatia’s World Cup play-off victory over Iceland, the Bayern Munich forward was dismissed for an outrageous lunge on opposing winger Johann Gudmundsson. The horror tackle leaves Mandzukic sidelined for the first group game in Brazil and could compromise the nation’s chance of progression to the last 16.
4/4 How they will line up (4-4-1-1):
Pletikosa; Srna, Ćorluka, Lovren, Pranjić; Perišić, Modric, Rakitić, Olić; Kovacic, Mandzukic
His coach Volker Finke added: “I think the most important thing for us tomorrow is that Samuel is with us, perhaps as a substitute."
Defeat for either team would spell elimination given that Brazil and Mexico now have four points each but Croatia, at least, have their main man back in attack as Mandzukic returns from the one-match suspension imposed after his sending-off in the qualifying play-off against Iceland.
Mandzukic scored in that play-off – and hit 26 goals for Bayern Munich this term – and according to team-mate Daniel Pranjic, Croatia will be a different team for his presence.
“He definitely makes us stronger and you can't replace him like-for-like,” said Pranjic. “He’s prepared to go out and die for the cause. Nikica Jelavic did really well against Brazil but Mario is Mario. We need him. We’re a totally different team without him.”
Given the high stakes, Croatia are also expected to include Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric, who has been nursing an injury to his right ankle. Pranjic added: “It’s all-or-nothing for both teams. The losers will pack their bags and go home.”