Breel Embolo grew up in Basel but he was born in Cameroon’s capital, Yaoundé, and did not receive Swiss citizenship until eight years ago. That explains why the Monaco forward refrained from celebrating one of the simplest, yet potentially most significant, goals he will ever score.
In an awkward group also featuring Brazil and Serbia, this was a game Switzerland needed to win and, in the 48th minute, Embolo ensured it would prove mission accomplished.
It was not Embolo’s fault his six-yard finish drove a stake through Cameroonian hearts as the chances of their team progressing beyond the group stage for the first time since Italia 90 receded appreciably.
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“Football writes these stories,” Murat Yakin, the Swiss coach, said. “I told Breel: ‘Cameroon are your friends but they are your opponents too.’ I’m happy with his performance.”
The opening week of Qatar 2022 has showcased plenty of intricate passing, intelligent movement and sometimes kaleidoscopic positional interchanging but Cameroon introduced a retro theme, reminding everyone that crashing balls into the corners has not necessarily had its day.
The gameplan was centred heavily on getting the ball long and early to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The Bayern Munich striker remains familiar to his former public at Stoke, and sodoes Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri. Now with Chicago Fire, Shaqiri, who also retains a certain fanclub at Liverpool, isSwitzerland’s creative catalyst but took time to get going.
Shaqiri’s every first-half manoeuvre was heavily shadowed by Cameroon’s left-back, Nouhou Tolo. When Shaqiri switched wings he experienced similar treatment from Collins Fai.
Such early struggles dictated that although the Indomitable Lions did not always get their own way in a central midfield staffed for Switzerland by Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Nottingham Forest’s Remo Freuler, they were frequently free to concentrate on feeding Choupo-Moting.
Yakin had left Newcastle’s Fabian Schär on the bench and instead paired Nico Elvedi and Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji in central defence. Choupo-Moting, before fading, revelled in subjecting that pair to a thorough workout, on one occasion flicking the ball beyond Akanji only to shoot tepidly at Yann Sommer.
An even better chance arrived when Brentford’s Bryan Mbeumo – whose right-sided advances sporadically menaced – unleashed a shot that Sommer parried into the path of the well-placed Karl Toko Ekambi, whose effort veered wildly off target. Otherwise, Toko Ekambi found himself efficiently, and intelligently, marked by Silvan Widmer.
Rigobert’s Song’s tactics may have been straight out of the Sam Allardyce playbook but as the impressive Sommer saved again, this time from Martin Hongla, Switzerland looked rattled. By half-time they had barely threatened, failing to muster an effort on target. Moreover, Cameroon’s key midfielder, Napoli’s André-Frank Zambo Anguissa, had finished the first 45 minutes strongly and looked capable of disrupting the Freuler-Xhaka axis.
And yet for all Cameroon’s high-pressing, full-back-propelled counterattacking, their defence looked a bundle of nerves on those, admittedly strictly rationed, occasions Switzerland delivered the ball into their penalty area.
From one such incursion in the 45th minute they should have scored but Akanji botched an inviting headed opening after meeting Freuler’s corner.
Maybe that miss galvanised Switzerland, who emerged for the second half in altogether slicker, sharper passing mode and were swiftly reward when Embolo struck.
With the defence having lost concentration Shaqiri was permitted to capitalise on smart approach work from Xhaka and Freuler and send a low cross curving towards the similarly unattended scorer. All that remained was for Embolo, who has established a charity foundation helping refugees in Switzerland and disadvantaged children in Cameroon, to stroke the ball home from six yards before that impassive reaction.
It was Switzerland’s first shot on target and, briefly, the African drums and vuvuzelas – which had been making quite a noise on the Doha metro early on Thursday – fell silent.
The soundtrack had resumed by the time Zambo Anguissa’s superb interception prevented Embolo from registering another goal and André Onana’s fabulous diving save denied Ruben Vargas.
After that Switzerland retreated deep, packing their defence. With Choupo-Moting a shadow of his first-half self, Cameroon could find no way through.
“It’s difficult to lose a game we dominated in the first half,” Song said. “I feel disappointed but we have only three players with previous World Cup experience – and there are two more games.”