With Lucas Cavallini stepping on the penalty spot in injury time and a friendly win against Japan on the brink, John Herdman turned to his bench.
“If Cavallini tries the panenka, I’ll kill him,” Canada’s head coach told his players after beating a very disciplined Japanese team 1-1, who also qualified for the World Cup starting on Sunday.
Cavallini, who came on as a second-half substitute at Kuwait’s Al Maktoum Stadium on Thursday and is currently without a club for next season after his option was turned down by MLS outfit Vancouver Whitecaps, could have all but sealed his fate, since he actually hit a Panenka.
Goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda pulled it off and for a split second it looked like Canada would start Qatar 2022 with a downer: they were tactical in a first half where they conceded a goal after nine minutes been surpassed and only grew into the game the second with a resilient, albeit inconspicuous game on the ball.
A missed Panenka in a match-winning situation in their last warm-up would only add to the chorus of those who believe Canada will be unseated by Group F opponents Belgium and Croatia in their first two World Cup games.
Instead, the ball happily bounced over the line, giving Canada a 2-1 win.
“I’m proud of him,” Herdman said of Cavallini, smiling. “It just shows the trust in the team.”
Half of the team ran to Cavallini to celebrate equal parts bravery and luck, while the other half ran to Herdman to make sure he didn’t keep his promise.
In the end, smiles united the two groups and the spirit of this Canadian team is, as they say, impeccable. And their resilience could be the most important element of their World Cup hopes.
“We (went) down early but we didn’t put our heads down,” says defender Alistair Johnston. “We learned from (the 2-0 defeat to Uruguay in a friendly in September), we learned who we are, that we need to have that ‘f*** it’ attitude a little bit earlier.”
On Wednesday were Canada tuned through the athlete‘s Readers as the team most likely to upset the World Cup among the 10 lowest ranked teams. Judging their performance in the first 45 minutes on Thursday, it felt like that prediction was a long way off.
“In the first half I felt like we were trying to find that rhythm against the intensity of Japan,” says Herdman.
Japan preferred to expend their energies in the middle of the park where Sam Piette and Atiba Hutchinson looked superior in the first half. This is, on the outside at least, the kind of tactical plan most sides could easily come up with against Canada: On the list of players to target defensively are a 39-year-old (Hutchinson) and a player who not known for its speed (Piette) will obviously be prominent.
There were also a lot of defensive mistakes early on.
Japan’s goal came when they sent a long ball down Herdman’s midfield. Canadian defenders then misinterpreted the ball, allowing Yuki Soma to slide the ball easily past Milan Borjan.
But watching Canada score a Steven Vitoria goal from a corner to get back in the game and struggle through a tenuous second half, it’s hard not to look at the dismal performance and still have that sense of wonder somewhere to keep in mind head.
“Certainly in the second half, the way we put our foot to our throats in the last 20 minutes, that showed how determined we are to push and try to score,” Herdman said. “I thought we really tried to push and that was a proud moment for me. It could have been easy for the guys to sit back and that’s a nice easy move (so close to the Worlds). But it was nice to see them pushing.”
Some believe Canada can continue this pressure, play well on the wings and surprise the talented but aging Belgium and Croatia teams. And there was reason to believe that could happen in yesterday’s game. Tajon Buchanan and Junior Hoilett were relentless on the ball. Dropping low to find passes, Jonathan David showed he could hold his own against Japan’s defenders.
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Others believe the team’s inexperience will show itself against teams ranked second and twelfth in the FIFA rankings. Herdman, for example, has struggled to manage expectations in recent weeks, repeatedly pointing to the qualitative gap between Canada and its opponents. (The other team in the group, Morocco, which sits in 22nd place, is also well ahead of 41st placed Canada.)
But what is this team thinking right now?
mood, man. vibrations.
“If you look at our group, this brotherhood that we’re pushing forward, it encompasses so many different things,” says Johnston. “And one of those things is resilience. Again, I think that’s one of the hallmarks of our group – that no one’s life has ever been taken easy. And that shows on the pitch: we fight for even the smallest junk.”
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That win against Japan was a friendly against a team that wasn’t at full strength, so it’s fair to take the result with a pinch of salt. Japan are gearing up for their seventh consecutive World Cup and seem able to turn it on when the need arises.
But Canada wasn’t at full strength either.
Herdman said on Thursday that Alphonso Davies was on his way to join the squad and that they were generally pleased with his recovery from a hamstring injury sustained in a Bayern Munich game two weeks ago. It’s still worth wondering if he’ll be at full strength for Wednesday’s opener against Belgium and if he can be ready to start the game or play the full 90 minutes.
In addition, Stephen Eustaquio was not even available from the bench against Japan.
Herdman has been predictably coy about his injury, revealing next to nothing in his post-game press conference. But with just days before the World Cup, he has every right to try and play mind games. He described Eustaquio, who was ruled out of the line-up on Thursday, as “precautionary” so it’s safe to assume the central midfielder will be ready to pull the strings and hit Kevin De Bruyne and co consistently in just under a week to play.
Davies and Eustaquio are undoubtedly the two most important players on this team and their quality can mask other blemishes. And there were plenty of those against Japan: Canada struggled to break out from the back with Piette in the starting XI and Hutchinson also needed time to find his rhythm. Johnston, Borjan and Kamal Miller also made some questionable decisions in defence.
Resilience and hard games to borrow one of the most Canadian phrases out there can yield surprising results.
But for Canada to have a chance of getting out of their group, their good players have to be great and their biggest players, Davies and Eustaquio, have to be world champions. Belgium and Croatia just offer too much skill and resources and Canada doesn’t have nearly that kind of depth and experience.
For Canada’s switching game to be effective across the board, which wasn’t always the case against Japan, they need to rely on their fastest players for 90 minutes. Buchanan faced the task yesterday but Sam Adekugbe’s intensity waned as the game progressed. And if Davies isn’t in full health and doesn’t up his game, Canada’s chances will drop significantly.
If Davies is in full fitness and playing as convincingly as he did at his best with Bayern this season, Canada could create more scoring chances on the counterattack.
If Eustaquio can dictate the pace of play, as he did for Porto at his best this season in the Champions League, Canada will be less able to rely on his transition game.
Belgium, third at the 2018 World Cup, and Croatia, runners-up, are the kind of opponents this side have never come up against and it’s fair to worry if Canada have enough experience and tactical adaptability to be able to access it when it will be hard, as it will certainly be the case in these two games.
I recently asked David, who played for Gent in Belgium for two years before joining current club Lille in France in the summer of 2020, what he expects from the Belgium team. Unsurprisingly, he was initially interested in their tactical and technical know-how.
“From what I’ve learned over the years, it’s a very fluid game,” says David. “So it’s very back and forth, a lot of attacks, the next wave of attacks on both sides. But they also have a lot of technical players and certainly in midfield very, very good players on the ball who could just kill the team with a pass.”
Whether Canada can stay focused remains to be seen. They’ll also need a healthy dose of luck to go through – they clearly had that against Japan – and they’ll also need some help from set pieces to score.
Hoilett was arguably Canada’s best player yesterday, moving the ball with composure and conviction and sending precise corner kicks into the penalty area. He looked like a player unwilling to give up his starting spot once Davies returns.
When asked about Hoilett, who sometimes doesn’t get the credit Canada’s other attackers deserve, Herdman got back to the vibes.
“He feels at home here with his Brampton boys (Hutchinson, Buchanan and Cyle Larin are from there too). He’s just having fun with his buddies. And he’s reached a level of fitness now and he’s playing for Reading (in the English championship) as a full-back,” said Herdman. “We’re starting to see the junior I’ve been pushing for.”
This is why Canada remains such a positive story on the road to this World Cup. They genuinely believe that their mind can lead to positive outcomes.
But Belgium, Croatia and Morocco are in the process of testing this idea in ways this site has never seen before.
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(Photo above: Martin Dokoupil/Getty Images)