Cameroon held on for a nervy 3-2 victory over Zambia, to earn a slim first leg advantage in the race to earn Africa’s automatic ticket for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene scored the winner with two minutes left on the clock, adding on to an earlier goal that had taken the Cameroonians 2-1 up. Star player Ajara Njoya broke the deadlock before Zambia’s Grace Chandu scored a double for the visitors.
It was billed to be a tightly contested match and it lived up to its billing with the visitors giving a good account of themselves with a high pressing game in the opening minutes, an indicator they were not in Cameroon to play for anything less than a win.
The home side however had the first sniff at goal with Njoya’s well diced pass destined for Henriette Akaba cut out by the defense before Ngock Yango’s shot was blocked by the backline for a corner.
Zambia didn’t take long to respond in kind. Margaret Belemu had a go at goal after being put through by Hellen Mubanga, but her shot from good range was blocked by Estelle Johnson.
But Zambia’s building charge was slowed down after just quarter an hour of the game when they had to make a change enforced by injury, Rhoda Chileshe coming off for Zulu Misozi.
With the destabilization of their pre-match game plan due to injury, the Zambians seemed a bit shaken giving a window of opportunity to Cameroon to strike. On the half hour mark, Onguene came close for the home side with a shot off Njoya’s pass going inches wide.
Five minutes later, the two combined again in front of goal, but they could not find the back of the net, the chance going begging once again.
For the missed chances, Cameroon were punished.
Off a swiftly executed counter attack, Barbara Banda sent Chandu through with the forward running into space on the right before beating keeper Angel Bawou with a brilliant finish for her seventh goal of the qualifiers.
Stunned, Cameroon led by coach Alain Djeumfa on the bench immediately go into overdrive to try and search for an equalizer. It took them just four minutes to get back on level terms when Njoya sent her side on level terms with a ferocious thunderbolt off a Collette Ndzana pass from the left.
It was a huge relief for the Cameroonians as the two went to the break level.
The second half kicked off with as much enthusiasm, the adrenaline levels both on the stands and on the pitch rising with a place in Tokyo at stake.
Djeumfa made changes woth Ngo Mback Batoum and Geneviève Ngo Mbeleck being introduced in place of Akaba and Catherine Mbengono.
The changes prove to be a masterstroke for the home side as the fresh pairs of legs now give Njoya and Onguene more freedom to move upfront causing more trouble to the Zambian defense.
They had a brilliant chance when Ndzana broke through on goal and with keeper Hazel Nali off her line, the Cameroonian forward tried to lob the ball over, but it ended up crushing on the crossbar.
The pressure continued with Mbeleck missing a sitter inside the box within the opening 15 minutes of the half, The pressure finally bore fruit in the 71st minute when Onguene scored the first of his two with a sleek finish off a Njoya pass, the partnership finally bearing fruit.
But it was short lived joy for the Cameroonians as some lack of concentration saw Zambia grab the equalizer just three minutes on the turn.
Chanda broke through on goal to finish off for her eighth goal of the campaign with a deft finish.
With a second away goal, the Zambians were scenting blood and for them, victor was in sight. They tried to guard the draw, knowing only too well it would place them higher in advantage heading into the return leg.
However, the Cameroonians and their never say die attitude kept the fight and Onguene grabbed the winner two minutes from time to hand a massive relief to the hungry home crowd.
Alain Djeumfa (Head Coach, Cameroon)
I said before that there is no small team. If Zambia has reached this fifth round, that means that it is a great team and we saw it this evening. This is a game with all to play for in the return leg. We saw what was missing and we will work on it and prepare well. The most important thing is the qualification.
Honestly, at the start of the game, the girls weren’t calm and composed. They were a little under pressure, maybe the stakes had taken over the game. I think we re-mobilized them. We can’t remain comfortable with this victory and we have to go look for the win over there.
Bruce Mwape (Head Coach, Zambia)
It is a bonus for us to be here because we are like outsiders. To reach a better position in the women’s football ranking, sometimes we have to face the best teams and that is what we are trying to do and certainly in the near future we will also be ranked higher. We are waiting for the return match and hopefully we can turn this round.
Source: Confédération Africaine de Football (CAF)