Round of 16 Women’s World Cup preview: China vs. Cameroon

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CHINA vs. CAMEROON

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., EDT
Where: Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton
TV: NBCDeportes.com
Team records: China 1-1-1 (second in Group A); Cameroon 2-1-0 (second in Group C)
Best performance at World Cup: China 1999 (finalist); Cameroon 2015 (first appearance in knockout stage)

Key players:
China – Wang Fei: Fei is one of the best goalkeepers in the world and the only Chinese player in Europe (Turbine Potsdam). Much of the Chinese success at the defensive end revolves around her and her 5-foot-11 frame, but a closer inspection of recent results shows Wang has not been perfect. Cameroon will likely get chances and Wang will need to be equal to the task.
Cameroon – Gaelle Enganamouit: One of the breakout stars of the World Cup, Enganamouit is hoping that on Saturday, the attention of her game matches the attention her hair has gotten. She has not been a prolific goal scorer for Cameroon in her international career thus far, but his size and athleticism should give China lots of trouble. Judging by her attitude in the group stages, she won’t wilt in the spotlight and having played a couple of seasons in Sweden, she has some big game experience many of her teammates do not.

Under-the-radar players:
China – Li Ying: This will be just her 14th cap for her country and she’s only 22, but Li has been the most skillful player for China in the group stages, and they are going to need her to not only keep the ball, but pick out her teammates. She stands to have some room to operate if Cameroon sticks to its open style, and on a team without many scoring options, Li may be the one to step up.
Cameroon – Christine Manie: The 31-year-old captain is listed at 5-foot-3, and she might not even be that tall, but she plays huge as both a severely undersized center back and leader for Cameroon. It was Manie who scored the winner over Ivory Coast in qualifying to put Cameroon in Canada, and she also has some big game experience, having played for Romanian champion Olympia Cluj, which also allowed her to participate in the UEFA Champions League.

“I am the only black player in Romania, and one of the only foreign ones,” Manie told FIFA. “It is true Romania is far from my country and my family, but I chose to do this job, that can bring you to every corner of the world. For the moment, I play in Romania, I don’t know where I will play next. Only God decides.”

As Julie Johnston has proven for the United States, a little guts can go a long way at the center back position.

Inside the numbers:
1 — Number of African teams to qualify for the knockout stages in World Cup history (1999 Nigeria). The continent also only had four wins in this tournament lifetime – two by that 1999 Nigerian team and none by debutant Cameroon, obviously – so this is a chance on the big stage not just for Cameroon, but largely underfunded African women’s soccer as well.

Random stat:
Cameroon outshot all three group stage opponents (Switzerland was close at 16-15, but they had a 20-4 edge on Japan), while China only had more shots than their opponent once (although that was an impressive 27-8 edge over the Netherlands).

Breaking it down:
It’s a fascinating contrast of styles with China playing very compact and lacking offensive talent with Cameroon preferring an open match and having several players (like Gabrielle Onguene who starred against Switzerland) that could give the organized Chinese defense trouble. However, it also breaks down fairly evenly once you take into account strengths and weaknesses.

Cameroon’s athleticism may be China’s biggest problem, they pretty much bullied Japan around in the second half (ending up with a 14-3 foul advantage, but also creating a few chances off Japanese mistakes. This is not to say aggressiveness = dirtiness, although Cameroon (after getting only one card each in its first two games) were given four yellows against Switzerland.

China, of course, had a sportsmanship controversy against New Zealand, when several players went down in the final 10 minutes and then head coach Hao Wei was removed from the touchline for interfering with a Ria Percival throw-in.

Many (with us included) have made comparisons between this Cameroon team and the 1990 men’s team that caught the world’s attention both with their results and style of play. In both occasions, most insiders figured Cameroon’s disorganization would eventually trump its entertaining and talented attacking play, but it really hasn’t been apparent thus far in Canada, with the possible exception of the first half against Japan. So China may beat them, but it probably won’t be due to a defensive meltdown.

In the end, this will be a remarkable quarterfinal appearance for one of these teams considering where they were four years ago, which is not at the World Cup. Making a call is one of those ever popular heart-head dilemmas, but the heart has its days.

Prediction: Cameroon 2-1 (AET)