TORONTO — It was a goal that capped off a 5-1 win, so it was hardly crucial in terms of the final result.
But the way he took his chance — confidently striding into the box, undressing the defender with a slick move and then cooly firing a low shot into the far corner past the reach of the goalkeeper — was a clear sign that Atiba Hutchinson is back to his old self.
That’s very good news for Canada, as it needs the veteran midfielder to continue his top form when it hosts Panama on Friday in a crucial World Cup qualifier.
Hutchinson, a 29-year-old native of Brampton, Ont., is generally regarded as Canada’s best player, but the central midfielder has been dogged by persistent injuries and had no less than three knee operations in the past two years. The lingering knee problem has meant he’s missed a number of games for both his club, Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven, and Canada.
After a summer spent resting and recuperating, Hutchinson claims his knee feels better than ever. It certainly showed no ill effects this past weekend when he scored in the 90th minute of PSV’s thrashing of AZ Alkmaar, his second goal in as many appearances in the current Dutch campaign.
Deployed as a right fullback by PSV, Hutchinson is looking forward to playing again for Canada at a time when he’s back in top form.
“It’s been a good start to the season, personally. I’ve had a good training and pre-season, I’ve been feeling good and getting in some games. I’ve been playing in a different position but I’m happy to be out on the pitch and contributing in the team. I want to do the same for Canada,” Hutchinson said.
Hutchinson’s importance to his country can’t be overstated. The PSV midfielder is easily Canada’s best player, combining speed, sublime distribution and playmaking ability. When he’s been absent through injury, Canada is a completely different team, lacking midfield creativity and offensive impetus. When he’s healthy, he’s a game changer.
He also brings his teammates more into the match, not only with his skills but also with his mere presence.
“I think it’s a different team mentally for the players (with Hutchinson in the lineup),” Canadian coach Stephen Hart stated. “He’s one of our leaders in the way he plays. He’s not very vocal off the field or on the field. But the way he plays, when he’s there, it gives the team a different dimension, a different balance. Having him is a big boost.”
In Friday’s contest and next week’s return match in Panama, Hutchinson will abandon the right fullback role he fills for PSV and once again serve as Canada’s chief creator in central midfield. It’s been some time since he’s played there, but he maintains it won’t be an adjustment at all.
“I’ve played in the middle throughout my career. It’s been my most natural position so I’m used to it. Of course, I haven’t played there for a little while, since the summer, but I’m sure I’ll get back into it pretty quickly,” Hutchinson said.
He later added: “When I play in (midfield) I always try to work hard both ways. Defensively, I try to do my job and also help with the team going forward. I’ll try to bring that into the (Panama) game.”
Canada could certainly use his help on the offensive end, as the Reds have just one goal in their two qualifying matches this round. The Canadian team created plenty of chances against Honduras back in June, but failed to convert any of them and were far too wasteful in front of goal, and settled for a 0-0 draw.
Hutchinson is confident Canada will find the net in these pair of matches against Panama, and points to teammates such as Simeon Jackson and others who have recently scored for their European clubs as a good sign.
“We know have to start (scoring) to move onto the next round. It’s something we’ve been missing for years,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve got players who’ve been in good form and scoring this month, and hopefully they can bring that into this team.”