It's a tale of two tournaments this afternoon, as group favorites the Netherlands seek to continue their winning ways against surprise cellar-dwellers Cameroon.
Don't let the two teams' standings at opposite ends of the Group E table fool you. Poor tactics and unlucky finishing undid Cameroon in their first two matches, but the Indomitable Lions, based on talent alone, are the second best team in this group. Despite their mathematical elimination, they will look to restore a modicum of pride by playing all-out against the always attack-minded Dutch.
For their part, the Dutch have looked masterful in dissecting the bunkered-down defensive formations of the Danes and the Japanese. They have yet to test their aging back line against a striker of Samuel Eto'o's calibre, and Joris Mathijsen and Giovanni van Bronckhorst will be hard put to preserve their spotless record against the Cameroonian super star.
Will Oranje complete the Cameroonian declawing, or will the Lions expose and eviscerate the fleshy underbelly of the Dutch Goliath? Either way, this match is bound to produce some top-notch scoring! Follow along with me, Mycroft, your favorite armchair analyst, as Cameroon take on the Netherlands at 2:30 p.m. E.S.T. on ESPN2.
FINAL ANALYSIS: What a disappointing tournament for Cameroon. Three one goal losses; each time they looked better than the last. Le Guen will have a lot of questions to answer if he ever returns to Yaounde with the team.
Heartbreak for Eto'o. Heartbreak for the veterans Rigobert Song, Pierre Webo, and Geremi Njitap.
If there's a ray of hope, it's that this team has a solid and very young foundation upon which to build for future success. With Samuel Eto'o already 29, though, where will the goals come from in the future? This team needs wingers, strikers, and a coach who knows how to make use of the squad he's been given.
For the Netherlands, things are looking up. Of all the favorites so far, they join Argentina as one of the two most dominant, and they join Brazil as one of the two most competent.
With a second round match-up against Slovakia to look forward to, the only thing this team really needs to worry about before the quarterfinal is taking their next opponent seriously.
With Robben healthy, van Persie healthy, and the defense looking solid, if not intimidating, could this be their year?
'92: FULL TIME is called, and for one team there's a long flight home and and sack full of "what ifs," while for the other it's a short rest before preparing for a surprising Slovakian side that took down Italy earlier today.
'90: Two minutes of extra time. Apparently Japan have scored a third goal and it's now 3-1.
'89: Huntelaar may be a cherry-picker, but he deserved a penalty for that clobbering he just took from Mbia. Perhaps a pity call from the referee?
'88: Cameroon seem to have accepted their fate. Their effort has cooled since the second Dutch goal. Three matches, three losses, but they've had the chance to win all three.
'87: Makoun can't believe he's tripped over himself again. He'd have had a decent chance if he hadn't stumbled over the ball.
'83: 2-1 to the Netherlands!
Closing in on the end of the match and Arjen Robben took a criminal mis-touch in space to almost lose his chance. Instead of a breakaway chance, he dribbled around to the top of the box and let loose a cannon of a shot that struck the post. The rebound sailed across the mouth of goal to a wide open Huntelaar.
It's a cheap one for the Hunter, but a good snapshot of what the return of Robben means for his side.
'82: Mbia earns a yellow card for a handball. The free kick is a close call, but it is cleared for a corner.
'80: With his shoulder-length dreads, beard, and 'stache all bleached blond, the massive Rigobert Song looks every inch the Indomitable Lion.
'77: And yes there is still a match going, lineup changes and all.
Mbia's blistering free kick effort was blocked by Heitinga's shoulder, which should turn black and blue overnight. Cameroon recovered the ball on the wing, but Eto'o was just off side there. What a shame.
How did this Cameroon team only manage one goal so far? If not for the Italian self-immolation and the French conflagration, this would have been the biggest under-achivement story of the tournament.
'74: God bless you, Paul Le Guen (but only a little). The veteran and long time captain, Rigobert Song, has taken the pitch in his fourth World Cup. Cameroon's most capped player, and one of the world's most accomplished internationals gets into the game.
I can see the almost palindromic headline now: Song's Swan Song!
'73: Arjen Robben has entered the game now! Rafael van der Vaart is off just in time, and the speedy winger will get his first appearance of the tournament.
'71: Mustoe's been saying it's been a good match for both teams and I have to agree. Cameroon are really looking strong, but the Dutch have been the model of composure for most of the match.
Idrissou is coming on for Choupo-Moting, who has not done much in this.
'70: And another poorly judged tackle from the Dutch gives van Bronckhorst a yellow card. Two yellow cards to key players could become a story line in the next round.
'69: Another deep free kick opportunity for van der Vaart. Please don't tell me that was supposed to be a shot. You've just embarrassed yourself there, Rafi.
'67: Nigel de Jong hasn't had much to say for himself thus far, but he almost announced his presence with a great goal off of a free kick. The shot went just wide of the post, and the heat is on for both keepers
'66: Elia has come on for the flagging Kuyt. This youngster can run.
Samuel. Eto'o. Does. Not. Miss. Those. He might have telegraphed the location of the shot to Stekelenburg, who dove the right way, but Eto'o's shot was unstoppable.
The Cameroonian minority in the stands got what they came for, but they may get more. This match is getting started in earnest.
'65: And it's a hand ball!! The ball made a fleshy "thwack" as it hit off of van der Vaart's arm and it's a penalty opportunity for Eto'o!
'64: The Lions look far more comfortable in the 4-3-3 than they did the first time around. Makoun has earned a dangerous free kick and i looks like Geremi will take it. What a thing if he can score here?
'62: Was that a Peter Crouch sighting? Vincent Aboubakar, despite his ridiculously lanky frame, put on a stepover clinic there and found Jean Makoun wide open inside the box. Makoun took a terribly lame shot one-on-one with the keeper, but these are the high-flying Indomitable Lions I wanted to see!
'60: Brilliant weaving run from Samuel Eto'o. He beat two men and was in on goal before the last second goal-saving tackle from Mathijsen robbed him. Better play from Cameroon as they seem to be picking things up with half an hour remaining.
'59: van Persie is coming off for Klaas Jan Huntelaar, the black sheep of the AC Milan bench.
'56: Vincent Aboubakar, the striker, is coming on for Gaetan Bong. This should mean a more offensive approach from the Indomitable Lions from here on in. The formation is changing as I type!
When will the fire works come?
'53: I'd like to see Cameroon start playing with the same urgency they displayed when down to Denmark. I know it's a meaningless game, but they need to salvage some pride here.
'51: van Persie wiiide open again; he receives it perfectly, but he's forced to take the shot with his right foot, or as he calls it, his "chocolate leg." Needless to say, the shot did not trouble the keeper.
'48: I certainly do hope Alex's uncle Rigobert makes it on to the pitch. Cameroon have nothing to lose and he would become the firs African player to appear in four World Cups. What has Le Guen got to lose, I wonder?
'46: And we're off again in the second half. As an Arsenal supporter, it's good to see van Persie get his (first?) goal, but I'm hoping there's nothing wrong with Alex Song. Chedjou started in his place, but he's not on for the 2nd half either.
HALFTIME: With essentially no stoppages to speak of, the referee seemed in a hurry to head to the locker room. I hope he didn't drink too much water before the match.
Cameroon have looked a far more solid side all over the pitch than they did against Japan and Denmark. They've not only held their own agaisnt the Dutch, but they've really controlled the flow of the game.
For their own part, the Dutch haven't seemed in a hurry to stretch the field or take the match to Cameroon. Rarely have they done anything faster than at a jog, but they've still managed to show off their versatility by using the few chances they've created with deadly efficiency.
This match could easily be 1-0 to Cameroon right now, but 1-0 the Netherlands is more than appropriate.
Catch you on the flipside.
'45: Eto'o was almost through there, but he hasn't really troubled the Dutch so far.
Cameroon have created their fair share of chances, but as in the last match, the finishing touch is not there. If Eto'o had a legitimate striking partner, this team could have made some noise this tournament.
To be fair, I suppose that's like saying, "If Napoleon had an atom bomb at Waterloo..."
'43: Ignore the fact that his team is losing. Geremi is my man-of-the-match so far. Two more perfect crosses ask serious questions of the Dutch central defense. Heitinga was nowhere to be found, Mathijsen could barely get off the ground. How will they defend against these crosses in the knockout stages?
'40: Eto'o barely caught offside there. He'd have been through, but where has he been thus far. That may be the first time he's given any reason to call his name in 15 minutes.
'38: Great line from the color commentator: "Bong is strong."
Cameroon seem to have woken up a bit. They've challenged the Dutch back line since the goal.
'36: And Robin van Persie has opened his tally with a great strike! I wonder if the Dutch squad heard the score of the Japan-Denmark match. A lovely pass, perfectly weighted, put the Arsenal striker alone in behind the Cameroonian defense, and he 'megged the helpless keeper from eight yards out to give his side the 1-0 lead.
'32: Great string of passes from the Dutch to get their closest chance so far. The shot was off line, but that was good penetration. I wonder if they're feeling the Japanese breathing down their nets? The other match is at 2-0 now...
'31: Excellent cross from Geremi! How did Makoun not get over that? he had a wide open header. Stekelenburg was nowhere to be found. It could be 1-0 to Cameroon if not for that miss.
'30: Cameroon not looking like much in the offensive third. This match is ALL midfield. The Dutch would still win the group with a draw, but what does that say about their form going forward?
'28: Criminy, I hear Japan actually scored in the other match. Say it ain't so!
'26: Poor decision from Mbia and a dangerous free kick for the Netherlands. Hamidou, impressively, wraps up the shot. He saw it all the way, but it was important not to give up the rebound, as Kuyt was charging hard.
'25: We're past the halfway point in the first half and three names I was expecting to use a lot more are "Kuyt," "Van der Vaart," and "Et'o."
The Dutch wingers have been out of it, except for a little work from van der Vaart in the last couple of minutes. Still, I doubt he's broken a sweat.
My biggest question is where is Eto'o? Cameroon's all-time leading scorer has been anonymous.
'21: When Cameroon are in possession, the Netherlands is squeeeeezing them into one side of the pitch or the other. They might be too full of delicious Dutch chocolate, but for their own part, I'm surprised that the Dutch wingers are not working the flanks at all.
'19: van Persie offside...again. This is becoming a theme in the match, but the space is there if he can time his runs better. Come on, you Gunner!
'17: This is my problem with leaving Achille Emana out of the lineup: How do Cameroon move the ball forward through a packed midfield without their only attacking midfield player?
Dirk Kuyt picked up a senseless yellow card just there. What can he have been thinking? Peace and love, mate. Peace and love.
'15: A Frank de Boer sighting on the sideline! Dennis Bergkamp being my favorite player of all time, it's good to see the man who fed him the ball for that greatest of all Bergkamp goals (which is saying something).
What's the Dutch for "golazo"?
'13: Another deep free kick opportunity from Geremi comes to naught, but Cameroon are looking sound.
The Dutch are clearly playing with no urgency, but I'm liking the shape the Lions are keeping despite Kuyt and van Persie's best efforts to unstitch them.
'10: Geremi's free kick is not very well cleared by Stekelenburg, and the end result is a corner kick to Cameroon. The Lions haven't gotten wide as much as I'd have expected. They seem to be funnelling into the middle of the pitch, but the pace is good.
Who will score first?
'9: Miiiiiiiiles of space for van Persie, but he's offside.
'4: Beautiful touch from van Persie. He's been largely anonymous so far, but I expect to hear from him by the tournament's end.
That was Chedjou with that shot on goal just now. It looks like Mbia is in the back, and Chedjou is in the center of the midfield with Makoun.
'3: Interesting. It seems that despite appearing on the lineup card, Alex Song is not in the match. Aurelian Chedjou, who has yet to play, is starting instead, but I believe he's a center-back. This means Mbia may be in his natural midfield position, rather than the back line.
'1: Great start for Cameroon, though the cross was poor. I've said it before and I'll say it again. How did this team lose to Japan?
'1: And we're off!
Match time -3: Seeing that sea of orange in the stands was pretty intimidating. It gave me a premonition of a terrible Cameroonian defeat, but I am confident that they will acquit themselves with honor in this last match. I think the Dutch win it, 3-1 or so, but I'd love to see the Lions keep it close late and maybe tally multiple goals on their way out.
2:25 p.m. E.S.T.: Wow, I love the Indomitable Lions, but their national anthem is about as discordant as their play in the last two matches.
2:20 p.m. E.S.T.: I'm looking forward to keeping track of Denmark-Japan. I love many things Japanese, including films, literature, food, and people, but the way they play is anathema to me. They do not play offense. Period. It's like catenaccio without the pretense of attacking.
Alexi Lalas just said it, but if Denmark scores one goal, they've won the game. Frankly, I really hope they do. They are by far the more deserving side. Also, I live in the hope of being able to cover the "next" Denmark match, and deploying my favorite nickname for Nicklas Bendtner once again. I really hope "the Red Baron" catches on.
2:14 p.m. E.S.T.: ESPN2 has finally switched to the pre-match show. I was getting a little worried there, considering kick-off is barely 15 minutes away.
2:07 p.m. E.S.T.: So, I like coming up with playlists and theme songs for all sorts of things. (See this article if you're not already a Mycroft Holmes devotee).
I've been trying to come up with a good song to represent the Landon Donovan game-winner against Algeria. Any suggestions?
2:02 p.m. E.S.T.: I picked Brazil over Germany in the final, which I stand by, but this Dutch team have looked far more composed than I expected. If they can maintain this level of maturity and keep the infighting to a dull roar, they may prove dangerous.
I'm still suspicious of their defensive lineup, though. Khalid the Cannibal and Gregory van der Wiel do not inspire confidence, and Joris Mathijsen and Gio von Bronckhorst need to be oiled at the joints like the Tin Man.
1:58 p.m. E.S.T.: I talked to my sister, who's in New York, and I want to believe that they've declared a day of mourning across all of lower Manhattan, or at least in Little Italy. Can anyone confirm?
The French had to fly coach into a out-of-the-way airport. I bet the Italian Federation will give each of its players a water bottle, a book of matches, and a rifle and tell them to walk home.
1:55 p.m. E.S.T: God love them! That Isner-Mahut marathon is over. I didn't realize they were ever planning on finishing. I'd have been a little more excited to turn that match on for the third day in a row if it had been a little more like the Roddick-el Aynaoui classic from when I was in high school.
Isner-Mahut looked a lot more like pong whenever I tuned in.
1:45 p.m. E.S.T.: My first reaction to the Cameroonian lineup is a paraphrasal of my favorite Michael Bluth line from Arrested Development: "Him?"
Eric Choupo-Moting is in, Gaetan Bong is in, and Landry N'Guemo is making his long overdue World Cup debut for the Indomitable Lions. I suppose Bong is in for the honor of the occasion, but it's a real surprise to see Choupo-Moting on the lineup card instead of the veteran Pierre Webo, who will likely never play in the World Cup again.
I liked Choupo-Moting's performance in the first match, though it was uneven. There were times when he was really creative on the ball, but him over Webo?
I guess Paul Le Guen is really doing everything in his power to lose his job.
1:38 p.m. E.S.T.: The Cameroonian lineup, has once again undergone significant retooling from the previous match, reflecting the uneven results:
Assou-Ekotto - N'Koulou - Mbia - Bong
N'Guemo - Makoun - Song - Njitap (Geremi)
Eto'o - Choupo-Moting
1:32 p.m. E.S.T.: And here are your lineups. No real surprises for the Dutch. The only change is that veteran Stuttgart defender Khalid Boulahrouz will be starting in place of the yellow card-strung Gregory van der Wiel:
de Jong-van Bommel
van der Vaart-Sneijder-Kuyt
1:28 p.m. E.S.T.: We'll go live with lineups shortly, but I'd like to preview the match with a brief tactical analysis.
The undefeated Dutch find themselves in the enviable position of having already qualified for the round of 16. Nonetheless, manager Bert van Marwijk is faced with the difficult assignment of striking a balance between the desire to rest some of his star players, and the need to keep his preferred starting XI sharp and cohesive.
I would expect no more than 1 or 2 changes from the starting lineup that took the pitch against Denmark and Japan. Injury-prone Robin van Persie would be my guess to sit out, along with youngster Gregory van der Wiel, who received a yellow card in the last match.
The Dutch play a 4-5-1 formation. But don't get me wrong; this is not your grandfather's 4-5-1 (nor is it the near comatose 4-5-1 that the Dutch faced over the weekend against Japan). The Dutch love to attack, and this match may see the return of one of their most electric wing players, Arjen Robben. Despite the lack of urgency, I expect them to attempt to dominate possession and exploit Cameroon's suspect wing defense.
Cameroon will look to do the same thing in this match that they did in creating a myriad scoring chances against Denmark, though they will hope for better finishing this time around. When properly balanced, the Indomitable Lions are able to produce lots of dangerous crosses from the overlapping runs of their full-backs and wing midfielders. At the same time, Achille Emana and Samuel Eto'o are capable of tearing through opposing defenses straight up the gut.
The problem for Cameroon is defensive discipline. If they hope to win this match, they must not overextend themselves going forward. If they concede the first goal, this match could get ugly or boring, depending on how they react.