Canada so agonizingly close to victory

Maple Leaf men carry play against No.2-ranked Belgium, but can’t solve keeper Courtois

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It was right there. It was right, agonizingly, there.

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Opinion

It was right there. It was right, agonizingly, there.

Right on Junior Hoilett’s foot, on Jonathan David’s head, on the penalty spot as Alphonso Davies waited, waited and waited for the referee’s whistle, after which he drove the ball into the diving figure of Thibaut Courtois.

When the opposition goalkeeper is a game’s best player, chances are you did whatever you could and came up short. Came up just, agonizingly, short.

Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois stops Canada’s Alphonso Davies’ penalty kick Wednesday. Courtois was the difference in the match, keeping Canada off the scoreboard in Belgium’s 1-0 victory.

And that’s what we can rightfully claim after Canada’s 1-0 defeat to Belgium in Al Rayyan.

Courtois, the Real Madrid shot-stopper, really did steal at least a point for his country. Given that the match was our first at a men’s World Cup in 36 years — nevermind the fact that we dominated large swathes of the proceedings at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium — you’d think we’d at least deserve a kind of moral victory from the performance, if not the result.

Not so fast. Yes, the 2018 semi-finalists arrived in Qatar ranked second in the world, but the list was always misleading. Les Diables Rouges had struggled throughout the calendar year, most recently losing to Egypt, and their own press had started to downplay expectations.

Immediately following the narrow win over Canada, Antwerp daily Het Nieuwsblad ran with the headline, “Thibaut Courtois the only star.” Le Derniere Heure had Michy Batshuayi, the lone goal-scorer, revealing that Belgium manager Roberto Martinez had lost his temper during the half-time interval.

No, the match was there to be won, and Canada should have won it. That may seem obnoxious to say after more than three decades in the wilderness and a ranking of 73 prior to qualification, but it’s true. It was right there. Right, agonizingly, there.

The Numbers

Canada started well and attacked to the very end. They attempted 22 shots to Belgium’s nine, and defenders in front of Courtois were forced to block eight of them. They passed the ball at 82 per cent efficiency—equal to that of the Europeans. Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne — one of the world’s best at his position — completed 69 per cent of his passes, touched the ball 49 times and contributed one tackle. Canada’s Steven Eustaquio passed at 86 per cent, enjoyed 78 touches and helped out with three tackles.

Report Cards

Alphonso Davies: Full credit to the Bayern Munich blue-chipper. He overcame a hamstring injury in time to start Canada’s World Cup opener and occasionally dazzled on the dribble. But he shouldn’t have taken the 10th minute penalty. That was Jonathan David’s job, and while manager John Herdman has previously allowed his players to make penalty-taking decisions on the pitch, in the moment, he should probably step in and establish a hierarchy. C+

Jonathan David: You can’t fault him for trying. The Lille striker took seven shots — but he failed to hit the target once. C

Steven Eustaquio: Canada’s midfield maestro, he looked very much at home on the world’s biggest stage. A-

Kamal Miller: The CF Montreal defender made four vital tackles on Batshuayi, was good in the air, and moved the ball well out of the back. A

Atiba Hutchinson: The 39-year-old captain still hasn’t played a full match all season, but over the course of his 58 minutes on Wednesday there wasn’t a fitter player on the pitch. A

Takeaways

Canada can’t afford a lapse in concentration — even for a moment. It’s what cost them the goal when Steven Vitoria ventured a bit too far and was caught out by Toby Alderweireld’s phenomenal, arcing ball to Batshuayi. And, while it’s easy to say, they need to be more clinical. Or, clinical at all. They created some excellent chances against Belgium but only turned a handful of them into meaningful goal-scoring opportunities.

What’s Next

Wednesday’s early draw between Croatia and Morocco wasn’t ideal for Canada. Now, their three Group F rivals have at least a point apiece—Belgium have three—and next up are Croatia. On one hand, their assignment hasn’t much changed. They always needed at least four points to advance to the round of 16. On the other, Belgium likely presented a more winnable prospect than will the 2018 runners-up. A result against Croatia is now make-or-break.

World Cup Notebook

FIFA president Gianni Infantino let us know exactly what to expect at this World Cup when, during his pre-tournament press conference, he somehow managed to demean entire people groups—plural. A day later, he cozied up with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman during an opening match in which whole supporters’ sections were men-only. Prior to kick-off, more than 200 concession workers had been corralled outside, for up to nine hours, without food and water. The day after that, Welsh fans had their rainbow bucket hats confiscated at the stadium, Iranians were prevented from displaying the pre-1979 flag, and the Netherlands and England captains were successfully pressured into wearing less colourful armbands. And the day after that, Belgium were bullied into removing the word “Love” from the inside collars of their jerseys. FIFA and Qatar are playing an intimidation game, and it’s not going to end well for anyone.

And yet, there are heartening—even risky—examples of courage and conviction. On Monday, before losing 6-2 to England, Iran’s team refused to sing their national anthem in support of the women and girls-led uprising back home. Meanwhile, BBC presenter Alex Scott, a former England right-back, wore a One Love armband as she reported pitch-side. On Wednesday, Germany’s players sported rainbow stripes on their warm-up gear and then covered their mouths while the Deutschlandlied played on the loudspeakers. “Denying us the armband is the same as denying us a voice,” stated the German Football Association. “Human rights are non-negotiable.”

The first few days of this World Cup have been reminiscent of so many opening weekends of March Madness. Giants are being toppled; brackets are being altered, if not busted. Salem Al Sawsari and Mohammed Kanno helped Saudi Arabia deliver an all-time upset against Argentina on Tuesday. Also Tuesday, Ellyes Skhiri was immense in midfield as Tunisia began their campaign by drawing EURO 2020 semi-finalists Denmark. On Wednesday it was Japan substitute Takuma Asano playing the hero—his late winner shocking four-time champions Germany. Almost every match has delivered talking points. The football in Qatar has been excellent.

jerradpeters@gmail.com

Twitter @JerradPeters

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