Cameroon came from two goals down to earn a credible 3-3 draw with Serbia on Monday morning.
Both Cameroon and Serbia entered the game on the brink of elimination from the World Cup after two opening defeats, almost giving this fixture the air of a knockout game.
The first big chance came after a deft flick from Serbia’s captain Dusan Tadic, with Aleksandar Mitrovic rattling the woodwork in the tenth minute. The Fulham target man had cut inside the hapless Nicolas Nkoulou and fired across goal on his left foot, he was unfortunate not to score in the end.
Another glorious chance fell to Mitrovic in the 16th minute due to some further calamitous defending from Nkoulou and left-back Nouhou Tolo. However, he could only snatch at the opportunity and dragged a snapshot wide following two fluffed clearances from the Cameroon backline.
Wasteful going forward, Serbia soon paid the price from a set-piece. A Pierre Kunde corner was flicked on by Nkoulou, with his centre-back partner Jean-Charles Castelletto finishing the job with a simple tap-in at the far post.
Cameroon hadn’t won a World Cup match since beating Saudi Arabia in 2002 and were certainly fortunate to be ahead, the goal very much coming against the run of play. Serbia’s pressure eventually told before the end of the half, finding their own way through a very creaky Cameroonian rearguard from a set-piece in stoppage time.
Tadic, at the heart of everything for Serbia, lofted in a free-kick and Strahinja Pavlovic was left completely alone in the box to head in the easiest of chances. A deserved equaliser wasn’t the end of the first-half action, however, as Serbia went in front two minutes later.
Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa was loose with the ball on the edge of his own box, attempting to flick it over his head before losing possession. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic made no mistake with the opportunity, curling Andrija Zivkovic’s lay off beyond Dervis Epassy with his left foot.
The keeper, a late replacement for Andre Onana, should have done much better with the effort but could only parry the shot into the net. It might have been three and game over for Cameroon, but Mitrovic – who could have scored a hattrick in the opening period – had his shot deflected wide on the breakaway just before the whistle.
The second half picked up where things left off, with Serbia passing through their African counterparts at will. Tadic, in particular, was magnificent for his country, repeatedly finding pockets of space and turning to play in his teammates.
A sweeping Serbia move from front to back made it 3-1 in the 52nd minute. Tadic sent a lovely ball down the wing for Filip Kostic to chase, who then found Mitrovic in support. Serbia then unselfishly moved the ball between Milinkovic-Savic and Zivkovic down the right to leave Mitrovic with a chance he simply couldn’t miss this time.
As Serbia continued to find gaps, Cameroon found a way back into the game out of absolutely nothing. Castelletto knocked a hopeful ball forward to substitute Vincent Aboubakar who looked for all the world as though he was offside. His finish, an impudent scoop over the onrushing Vanja Milinkovic-Savic in goal, was unerring.
Suddenly, the Serbians were rocked. It was rinse and repeat for the Cameroon equaliser, as Aboubakar curled his run, darted in behind and squared for his strike partner Choupo-Moting to slam home and make it 3-3. Again it was a nervous wait for a VAR offside rule, again none came.
The final half an hour was frenetic, living up to the pseudo-knockout game billing. Mitrovic had two more fine chances but couldn’t find the net. What might Dusan Vlahovic might have done with the same opportunities?
It’s a question Dragan Stojkovic will surely ponder now as things eventually petered out, with both sides probably grateful for the point in the end. Serbia and Cameroon live to fight another day, although the hopes of either advancing have taken a substantial knock with Switzerland and Brazil to play.
For Serbia and Mitrovic, it’s a huge opportunity squandered. For Cameroon, it’s a smash and grab they will surely take.
GK: Devis Epassy – 3/10 – Brought in to replace Andre Onana and was poor for first two Serbia goals. Shaky throughout but did make one important stop when Mitrovic went through 1v1.
RB: Collins Fai – 5/10 – Energetic presence down the right but ineffective with his crossing.
CB: Jean-Charles Castelletto – 7/10 – Scored the opening goal and battled well with Mitrovic in the first half. Assist for Aboubakar’s goal.
CB: Nicolas Nkoulou – 2/10 – Was skinned by Mitrovic for opening chance and his failed clearance should have been punished soon after. Did set up goal but was disastrous defensively. Booked.
LB: Nouhou Tolo – 4/10 – Serbia continually exploited the space down his left side. Wasn’t given much assistance from Toko Ekambi but looked lost regardless.
DM: Martin Hongla – 4/10 – Anonymous before being substituted
CM: Pierre Kunde – 7/10 – Took the battle to Serbia in the middle and had a couple of dangerous runs and efforts on goal.
CM: Andre-Frank Zambo Anguissa – 3/10 – The Napoli playmaker made two costly errors with the ball and failed to control the game.
RW: Bryan Mbuemo – 6/10 – Looked lively on the counter before being substituted.
LW: Karl Toko Ekambi – 4/10 – Contributed very little of note and shot tamely at the goalkeeper when presented with a chance to pass in the second half.
CF: Maxim Choupo-Moting – 7/10 – Bayern Munich’s in-form forward was starved of service for much of the match but caused problems for Serbia’s back three with his physicality. Got a deserved goal to level the match.
SUB: Vincent Aboubakar (55′ for Hongla) – 8/10 – Caused chaos after his introduction, scoring a beautiful lob and creating the equaliser.
SUB: Christian Bassogog (67′ for Toko Ekambi) – N/A
SUB: Gael Ondoua (67′ for Kunde) – N/A
SUB: Samuel Gouet (81′ for Anguissa) – N/A
SUB: Georges-Kevin N’Koudou (81′ for Mbuemo) – N/A
Manager: Rigobert Song – 5/10 – The decision to send one of Cameroon’s best players in Andre Onana home from the tournament because he refuses to take long goal-kicks could have cost his team dearly. His timely decision to bring on Aboubakar changed the game
GK: Vanja Milinkovic-Savic – 6/10 – Aside from one risky moment storming outside his box to sweep up, the Serbia keeper was a dependable presence between the sticks. Left stranded for Cameroon’s second-half goals.
CB: Nikola Milenkovic – 6/10 – Firm in the challenge and composed on the ball. Showed great pace to chase down Bryan Mbuemo for a superb challenge on the cover. Unlucky to have been caught out with two automated offside goals.
CB: Milos Veljkovic – 4/10 – Lost Castelletto at the corner and couldn’t cope after Aboubakar’s introduction.
CB: Strahinja Pavlovic – 7/10 – Headed in a deserved equaliser but was substituted in the second half due to injury.
RWB: Andrija Zivkovic – 9/10 – A constant threat down the right-hand side and linked up brilliantly with his teammates. Always available on the overlap.
CM: Sasa Lukic – 4/10 – Offered very little in midfield and was muscled off the ball too easily.
CM: Nemanja Maksimovic – 5/10 – A steady operator, made one dangerous foray forward in the first half. Could have done better getting back for Aboubakar’s chipped finish.
LWB: Filip Kostic – 7/10 – The Juventus man was up and down the left flank throughout and Serbia looked much better with him in the team.
AM: Sergej Milinkovic-Savic – 9/10 – A force to be reckoned with in midfield. Ran the show.
CF: Dusan Tadic – 9/10 – Along with Milinkovic-Savic was a level above everyone else on the pitch. Weight of touch and pass superb throughout.
CF: Aleksandar Mitrovic – 5/10 – Missed chances galore but was a constant menace for the Cameroon backline to deal with. Scored one but should have had more given the quality of the opportunities.
SUB: Stefan Mitrovic (56′ for Pavlovic) – 3/10 – Beaten too easily inside the box by Vincent Aboubakar to lead to a Cameroon chance. Introduction weakened Serbia’s backline.
SUB: Srdjan Babic (78′ for Veljkovic) – N/A
SUB: Marko Grujic (78′ for Milinkovic-Savic) – N/A
SUB: Nemanja Radonjic (78′ for Zivkovic) – N/A
SUB: Filip Djuricic (92′ for Filip Kostic) – N/A
Manager: Dragan Stojkovic – 4/10 – Serbia were dominant for large periods but failed to take their chances. Failed to react to Cameroon’s fightback and his high defensive line was exploited in the second half