MANAUS, BRAZIL – Like any good goal scorer, Mario Mandzukic was in the right place at the right time.
The Croatia striker returned from suspension Wednesday and scored the final two goals in a 4-0 World Cup rout of an undermanned and somewhat out of control Cameroon.
“I was well prepared and had more time to prepare because I missed the first game. I had some extra training,” said Mandzukic, who got a red card in the playoffs and missed the opening match. “I don’t want to think too much about goals. We wanted to win, and the goals came as a reward.”
Cameroon started the Group A match without the injured Sameul Eto’o, and finished it without midfielder Alex Song. With the score only 1-0, Song was given a red card in the 40th minute for elbowing Mandzukic in the back in an off-the-ball incident.
Things got even more bizarre in injury time as the frustration within the team boiled over when Benoit Assou-Ekotto head-butted teammate Benjamin Moukandjo in front of their goal.
“It’s unimaginable. I saw this happen and I need to find out exactly what happened, why exactly these two players exploded,” Cameroon coach Volker Finke said. “I really hate to see that. It’s not the image of Cameroon I want to project.”
The result puts Croatia right back in the mix for a spot in the second round. If the 1998 semifinalists beat Mexico on Monday, they will guarantee themselves another match in Brazil. The Mexicans will advance with only a draw.
Cameroon is out, however, and can only play spoiler in its final match against five-time champion Brazil, also on Monday. If the 1990 World Cup quarterfinalists beat Brazil, the host country could still advance or be forced out of the tournament on goal difference.
Mandzukic headed in a corner from Danijel Pranjic in the 61st minute and then knocked in a rebound off a shot from Eduardo in the 73rd.
Both goals came as a result of being either perfectly placed, or luckily placed.
“He’s not just a goal getter, a goal scorer,” Croatia coach Niko Kovac said. “His attitude picks his team up and affects the opposing team.”
Earlier, Ivan Perisic set up Ivica Olic for the opening goal in the 11th, and he then scored the second himself in the 48th.
Cameroon knew it needed points against Croatia, and the team came out fast in an effort to take the early lead. Several dangerous attacks down the right flank caused concern to the Croatia defense early, but none of them materialized into any real danger.
“Tactically, we didn’t open the match well the first 10 minutes. We had some problems on the left flank,” Kovac said. “But then we scored a very important goal.”
The loss of Eto’o, who came to Brazil with a right knee injury, was a blow to the team, however. Although Cameroon still went on the attack even without its best attacker, the finishing class of the former Chelsea and Barcelona striker was missing.
The loss of Song didn’t help, either.
The midfielder, well away from the ball, was running back from the Croatia end when he lashed out and elbowed Mandzukic in the back. Referee Pedro Proenca of Portugal immediately pulled out his red card and sent Song off.
“The team tried with only 10 players, but the second goal arrived very early in the second half, unfortunately,” Finke said. “After that it was an uphill battle.”