While many will see Friday's early match between Mexico and Cameroon (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as the mere undercard bout before Spain and the Netherlands play a rematch of the last World Cup final, it'll be must-watch stuff. The great thing about undercard bouts is that, unlike the main event, they usually feature two sides with everything to gain and nothing to lose. This is probably going to be a lot more fun than the game that follows it because it's a must-win for both teams.
Brazil are the very clear favorites to not only get out of Group A, but win it comfortably, and neither Mexico or Cameroon wants to need points against them. Croatia are going to be a seriously formidable foe and a draw against them will be a great result for either side. That means that both absolutely need to pick up all three points in their opener to have any hope of making the knockout round.
These types of matches do occasionally turn into borefests in which both teams are more afraid of losing than of not winning, but with Miguel Herrera at the helm of El Tri, this is unlikely to be the case. Herrera's Club America never went into a negative mode, and his Mexico side haven't done that at any point during his admittedly short tenure.
Attacking is in their blood and he doesn't have the defensive midfielders in his stable to sit back and hold on for a shutout. Mexico have to attack to get good results, and if they score, Cameroon will have to attack them back.
Volker Finke is probably thrilled that he has a squad to play at all. The Cameroonian players refused to board the plane to Brazil as part of a contract dispute, which was eventually settled. They've signed on and jumped on the plane, and have no reported injuries at the moment. However, Pierre Webó and Samuel Eto'o were dealing with minor knocks a couple of weeks before the tournament, so they might not be quite fully fit.
Mexico have been wrecked by injuries in the build-up to the tournament and are left with something less than a first choice team in midfield. Luis Montes and Juan Carlos Medina both missed out and were not replaced like-for-like in the squad -- left back Miguel Ponce and right winger Javier Aquino replaced the two central players.
Jesus Corona suffered a back injury in friendlies and Rafa Marquez hurt his foot, but both should be fit to start. Corona, however, was part of a tight three-way battle to start at goalkeeper, and it wouldn't be shocking if his injury has led to Guillermo Ochoa beating him out for the spot, even though he has the No. 1 shirt.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Mexico (3-5-2): Guillermo Ochoa; Hector Moreno, Rafael Marquez, 'Maza' Francisco Rodriguez; Andres Guardado, Andres Guardado, Jose Vazquez, Hector Herrera, Paul Aguilar; Giovani dos Santos, Oribe Peralta
Cameroon (4-3-3): Loïc Feudjou; Henri Bedimo, Joel Matip, Nicolas N'Koulou, Allan Nyom; Stephane Mbia, Alex Song, Eyong Enoh; Maxim Choupo-Moting, Samuel Eto'o, Benjamin Moukandjo
Giovani dos Santos vs. Stephane Mbia - Mexico have always required some sort of playmaker. Whether that's in the form of a second striker or a true No. 10, El Tri always struggle to create chances if they don't have someone pulling the strings between attack and midfield. That man is likely to be Giovani dos Santos, who's going to see a lot of Cameroon's most defensive midfielder -- probably Stephane Mbia.
Even if that role is filled by someone else, whoever Gio faces is going to be bigger and stronger than him. He'll need to avoid getting knocked off the ball and pick out creative passes despite being hounded by someone twice his size.
Alex Song vs. himself - Alex Song has had a rocky time at FC Barcelona since moving there from Arsenal. He's been tried as both a central defender and a holding player and hasn't really done well at all. What he's best at is playing as a box-to-box player in a midifeld three -- an opportunity he might get with Cameroon -- but he'll still need to be the best version of himself to help his team.
If the Song who struggles at Barcelona shows up -- the one who's caught out of position on opposing counters and who gives the ball away constantly -- Cameroon will be in trouble. If he looks more like the Arsenal version of Song, they can run over Mexico's midfield.
Oribe Peralta vs. Loïc Feudjou - Mexico's wing backs are going to cross the ball into the box a lot, targeting Oribe Peralta. And Cameroon goalkeeper Loic Feudjou is going to be faced with some difficult choices about whether or not to come out for crosses. If he doesn't make the right choices, Peralta's going to hit the back of the net with a header.
The stars haven't quite aligned for Cameroon. Maxim Choupo-Moting, Joel Matip and Nicolas N'Koulou are finally in the primes of their careers, but they've hit their stride after Samuel Eto'o got old and Alex Song lost form. The names on the squad are more impressive than Mexico's but El Tri's starting XI consists almost exclusively of players in good form (Maza being the notable exception), and they're the better side technically. They'll score more than once and Eto'o won't have enough to bail Cameroon out in the end. 2-1 Mexico.