"Beware the wounded animal" might well be the most useful message Croatia can pin on their dressing room wall ahead of Wednesday's Group A showdown with Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions have not been brought to their knees just yet, but following their 1-0 opening loss to Mexico, they are undoubtedly starting to wobble.
These are testing times for the African side's coach, Volker Finke, but the German tactician has cautioned against an overreaction to the result against El Tri.
"It's obvious that we need to change something," he told FIFA.com. "But in football, the worst thing you can do is call everything into question. That doesn't work. In my opinion, you can't succeed like that. Doubts will drive you crazy. They lead to other doubts and you can't perform well when you start having doubts. That doesn't mean you shouldn't go in for self-criticism, but doubt brings in question the very foundation of football, which is cooperation."
Finke nonetheless feels that some of his charges are not quite at the peak of their powers. "Players like Jean Makoun and Samuel Eto'o aren't 100 per cent in terms of form, and that has repercussions on the pitch," he admitted. The Chelsea striker was certainly a frustrated figure against Mexico, with just a shot against the post to show for his efforts.
When you lose the first match, you have to pick up maximum points in the second to remain in the hunt.
Troubled by his right knee, the Cameroon captain may not even get a chance to bear his claws in their crucial meeting with Croatia. "There's no point theorising or speculating about that issue," said the coach. "We'll decide the day before the game if he can play or not. It's not a secret; this is exactly the same problem he was suffering from at our training camp in Austria. He's being looked after by the best doctors and everything is being monitored very closely."
Lion cubs ready to fill in
Should Eto'o fail to recover in time, Finke has several attacking talents in reserve, including 22-year-old Vincent Aboubakar, a like-for-like replacement who plundered 16 goals for Lorient this season. Meanwhile, Eric Choupo Moting, who operated on the left wing against Mexico, agrees that reasons for optimism remain.
"There were positives [in the last match]: we were able to create chances and played some good football," he told FIFA.com, having himself rattled in ten strikes for Mainz in Germany this term. "We just weren't able to counter attack like we'd wanted and we also weren't able to hold onto the ball. We need to position ourselves better."
For his part, Finke has focused on taming the various egos within his squad and retaining the unity that has sometimes deserted Cameroon in recent years. He is far less concerned with focusing his energy on thwarting Luka Modric, the playmaker key to Croatia's hopes as they vie to bounce back from their 3-1 loss to Brazil.
"We have talent in midfield as well," said the coach. "For example, Stephane Mbia and Alexandre Song play at the highest level. It's not as if our players don't have individual qualities. The real question is how we will tackle an opponent in the same situation as ourselves. When you lose the first match, you have to pick up maximum points in the second to remain in the hunt. That's why I'm keeping my plans to neutralise Modric to myself."
"The level of difficulty has doubled now and we need to take points in the next game," added Choupo Moting, conscious that the Indomitable Lions need to find their roar again to avoid becoming easy prey for Brazil in their final outing. There is also the small matter of ending a run of four consecutive FIFA World Cup™ group-stage exits, with Cameroon especially keen to erase memories of their three defeats at South Africa 2010 – even more reason for Croatia to fear these wounded beasts.