Mexico and Cameroon go into their World Cup opener knowing that they both need a win. Brazil is almost certainly getting out of Group A, while Croatia have the best center of midfield in the group and are favorites to finish second over El Tri. If either Mexico or Cameroon is going to get out of this group, it's going to start with getting three points on Friday.
Cameroon have arguably the biggest, strongest and nastiest midfield in this competition, but they're a bit lacking in creativity in attack, and the defense behind that midfield isn't the strongest. Mexico, meanwhile, have a pretty well-balanced team, but struggled to create good scoring chances in their warm-up friendlies before the World Cup.
Something that could prove important is that these teams will be playing different formations. Expect to see Mexico playing in a 3-5-2 -- that's three defenders, five midfielders and two forwards -- and Cameroon in a 4-3-3.
Mexico's team will look very different when they have the ball than when they don't have the ball. The two wide midfielders will look like defenders when Cameroon have the ball, but will have more freedom to attack than Cameroon's wide defenders will. Their middle defender -- likely Rafael Marquez -- will also get forward a bit, while Cameroon's two central defenders are likely to stay still.
The forwards will play a bit differently too. Mexico's forwards will both play centrally, but one -- probably Giovani dos Santos -- will come back into midfield to find the ball occasionally. Two of Cameroon's three forwards will start out on the wings, but will cut inside closer to the center forward.
Cameroon's biggest star is center forward Samuel Eto'o, who played his club soccer at Chelsea in the English Premier League this season. He's a bit past his prime, but at the height of his career, he was a huge star for Barcelona and Inter Milan. He's still Cameroon's most important player and their success likely hinges on how often they can get the ball to him.
Also important for Cameroon is Barcelona's Alex Song, who will function as a box-to-box midfielder. He'll be important in all phases of the game, but transition is where he's most key. He'll be the link between the defense and forwards when Cameroon wins the ball from Mexico, and he'll need to get back to stop Mexico's attacks when Cameroon loses the ball.
Expecting to see 'Chicharito' Javier Hernandez? Well, he's more likely to be an impact substitute than a starter. Mexico's big star up top is Oribe Peralta, who plays for Santos Laguna in Liga MX. He's strong, quick and scores with both feet and his head. He scores just as many garbage goals from scrambles as he does 25-yard bombs. When Mexico scores, he's almost always involved.
The aforementioned Marquez is also going to be a key for Mexico, more for his passing than his defending. Even though Peralta is powerful and Mexico's midfield was depleted by injuries before the World Cup, they still like to attack by passing out of their defense instead of playing directly to their wingers or forwards. Marquez will start most attacks, but because he's doing that from a defensive position, turnovers could lead directly to scoring chances for Cameroon. If Mexico gets scored on, it'll probably happen because an errant pass put defenders in a bad position, not because they're actually bad at defending.