KOBE — A last-minute header by Robbie Fowler of Leeds United earned England a share of the spoils as it drew 2-2 with Cameroon in a leisurely friendly in front of 36,424 fans at Kobe Universiade Stadium on Sunday.
The match, played in warm, sunny conditions, was the last official game for both teams ahead of the World Cup, which starts next Friday in Seoul.
Both teams used the full roster of players available to them, although England’s squad on the day was trimmed to 18 with the likes of David Seaman, Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Kieron Dyer and Ashley Cole all rested.
Both teams used the match more as a leg-stretching exercise than a competitive match, but Cameroon made most of the running in the first half.
“It’s important not to lose, but there’s no easy games,” England coach Sven Goran Eriksson said. “The players are still a bit jet-lagged and today was a friendly game so we could get all the players out on the pitch.”
Cameroon boss Winfried Schaefera took the game in the same spirit, perhaps not surprisingly after the troubles — money and air traffic control — getting his team to Japan.
“It was a nice match and the atmosphere was good,” he commented. “We were testing all the players as they hadn’t done anything for three days, and it was important we didn’t pick up any injuries.”
England started Wes Brown of Manchester United on the right side of defense, while West Ham youngster Joe Cole earned a start in midfield. Despite an early flourish, Cole failed to sparkle until the final quarter of the game.
Cameroon struck quickly, finding England half asleep after just four minutes. Left back Pierre Wome of Bologna chipped England keeper Nigel Martyn only to see the ball rebound back off the far post, where Mallorca’s Samuel Eto’o knocked in the rebound.
It only took England seven minutes to reply. With the Cameroon defense more worried about what Liverpool’s Michael Owen was doing, Paul Scholes of Manchester United saw Darius Vassell move into space just inside the penalty area and delivered a devastating pass to the Aston Villa striker. Vassell controlled the ball perfectly and cracked a shot off the right-hand post from 15 meters to even the score at 1-1.
Cameroon then took control of the match with Eto’o and former Gamba Osaka star Patrick Mboma — now with Sunderland — causing plenty of headaches for the English defense, while Real Madrid midfielder Geremi Njitap Fotso pulled the strings in midfield.
England came close to moving ahead in the 21st minute when an Emile Heskey header troubled Cameroon ‘keeper Boukar Alioum and Owen stabbed home the rebound, but he was ruled offside.
The half ended with Geremi curling a free-kick over Martyn’s bar. It was not trouble this time, but was a sign of things to come.
The fans were disappointed when Owen failed to come out for the second half as Eriksson rotated his players. Schaefera also wanted to give his squad members a runout and the second half became a procession of substitutions.
Halftime substitute Gareth Southgate was still asleep though, as he handled the ball just outside the area. Geremi showed he now had his eye in with a great curling free-kick that substitute ‘keeper David James could do nothing about, and Cameroon was up 2-1.
Mboma continued to show his class up front until he was replaced midway through the second half, but England gradually crept back into the game as Cole woke up and Trevor Sinclair put some pressure on the Cameroon defense.
But it was veteran Teddy Sheringham who came closest to leveling the scores. With 15 minutes left on the clock, the Spurs forward rose beautifully to meet an Owen Hargreaves corner but his slick header was pushed out by substitute ‘keeper Jacues Songo’o.
He repeated the trick a few minutes later after some classy interplay on the left between Wayne Bridge and Sinclair. The West Ham winger slung in a nice cross but Sheringham couldn’t quite get enough on the ball to turn it in.
But it all came right in the end with a last-minute free-kick from Brown that Sheringham redirected to Fowler and the Leeds man steered a fine header inside the far post over a couple of desperate Cameroon players.
The couple of thousand fans who were still in the stands 30 minutes after the match went nuts when Beckham, sporting a blond Mohican haircut, came out onto the pitch to do some light training. The England midfield star and captain passed the ball around before leaving the pitch and kicking a couple of balls into the stands for the fans.
“We hope he’ll be fit for Sunday,” Eriksson said.
The England coach said the other walking wounded would be assessed during the week before he chooses his team for next Sunday’s match against Sweden in Group F.
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