Wounded lions headed for survival clash in Amazon

MANAUS Brazil Mon Jun 16, 2014 3:06pm EDT

Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o reacts after missing a goal scoring opportunity against Mexico during their 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match at the Dunas arena in Natal June 13, 2014. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o reacts after missing a goal scoring opportunity against Mexico during their 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match at the Dunas arena in Natal June 13, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

MANAUS Brazil (Reuters) - Cameroon's Indomitable Lions must improve on a toothless display in their opening match when they face Croatia in the hot and humid Amazon city of Manaus in Group A on Wednesday while having to cope with the loss of pack leader Samuel Eto’o.

The four-time African Footballer of the Year has been ruled out of the clash due to a knee injury.

Cameroon, who lost 1-0 against Mexico in their opener, are seeking their first World Cup win since 2002.

Their next opponents Croatia, who have failed to reach the knockout stage since an impressive third-place finish in 1998, are also fighting for survival after losing their opener 3-1 against Brazil.

Croatia have their own problems as inspirational playmaker Luka Modric faces a race against time to recover from a foot injury he sustained in that match.

Coach Niko Kovac was confident he would have Modric available and welcomed the return of suspended striker Mario Madzukic, who will reclaim his spot from Nikica Jelavic to lead the line in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

“Modric is getting better and I think he will be fit to play while having Mandzukic back is a real bonus because he is aggressive and able to pull the whole team forward,” Kovac told reporters in the team’s Praia do Forte base.

“His approach can scare Cameroon and help Croatia.”

LOWER EXPECTATIONS

Initial outbursts over a contentious penalty to Brazil with the score 1-1 quickly gave way to pundits’ criticism of Kovac’s tactics as Croatia sat back after taking an early lead and the 42-year old coach promised a more adventurous strategy against the Cameroonians.

“It was hard to come forward against Brazil but this game will be a different story because I expect us to have more possession and dominate," he said.

“Purposeful running will be the key because of the weather. As we saw in a high-tempo England v Italy game and one of superb quality, both sides wilted after 70 minutes in the unbearable heat.

“It won’t be the end of the world if we don’t get past the group stage but I want to think positively and believe that we can make an impact.

"We have to remember that we are a small nation that scraped through to the finals, but I can still see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Cameroon’s German coach Volker Finke was tight-lipped about his team’s prospects of rekindling some of the past glory, by the looks of things a big ask from a modest outfit lacking the guile and creativity of the side that stormed into the last eight in 1990.

Instead, he heaped praise on his rivals.

“Croatia is a team that has good players. There are players who play at clubs in Spain, at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, in the Bundesliga ... it is clear that this is a good team,” he said.

"They are in the same situation as us, they lost their opener. If you have zero points after the first game, you do not talk too much, you just have to win at all costs.”

(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic; additional reporting by Mark Gleeson, Editing by Nigel Hunt)