DOHA, Qatar – Thirty-six years of heartbreak, upset and derision all lead to Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, where the Canadian men’s national team will play its first World Cup match in nearly four decades.
Belgium awaits as Canada opens its Group F play on Wednesday, and while the Red Devils are the favourites, Les Rouges can spring a surprise if all goes according to plan.
“It will be a real good test for the staff and for the players,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday.
“It’s something we’ll learn from, but more importantly, it’s something we’re going to really go towards, and I think that’s the opportunity we have here. Coming into a game like this, we don’t have a great amount to lose, just a genuine opportunity to make it our cup final.”
It’s safe to say Canada needs to be almost flawless in order for that to become reality.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of Canada’s World Cup opener against Belgium.
Here is how Canada could line up on Wednesday.
Herdman confirmed that Davies should be in contention to start, so that alleviates any concerns. Ditto for Stephen Eustaquio after battling a minor muscle injury during pre-World Cup preparations.
“I don’t think there was any doubt we’d be starting him,” said Herdman. “[Davies] is fit now. He’s hit his markers, he’s ready to go.”
In possession, Atiba Hutchinson should occasionally drop into the back three to allow Alistair Johnston to get forward as a right wingback. Eustaquio will be deployed box-to-box and Junior Hoilett should play in a free role behind Jonathan David, with Davies drifting from the left to the centre throughout the game.
The formation will shift into a 4-4-2 when Belgium owns possession, but it might also become a 5-3-2 depending on far it progresses the ball into Canada’s defensive third. Canada utilized both shapes in the 2-1 win over Japan last Thursday in those situations.
As for Belgium, this could be how they set up against Canada.
Star striker Romelu Lukaku has been ruled out of the opener, so Michy Batshuayi will start up front.
The only dilemmas for coach Roberto Martinez surround his defenders. Jan Vertonghen could make way for Arthur Theate, while Timothy Castagne will compete with Thomas Meunier at right wingback.
Regardless, expect a lot of activity on the flanks for Belgium, which loves to utilize its attack-minded wingbacks with the underlapping Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.
CANADA’S X-FACTOR: TRANSITIONS
With or without Jan Vertonghen starting on the left side of Belgium’s defence, there will be transitional opportunities for Canada.
Belgium may not concede a high number of counter-attacks, but the efficiency with which opponents generate shots must be a concern for Martinez.
Egypt edged Belgium 2-1 in a friendly last week, and despite producing only six shots, the Pharaohs managed to wreak havoc in transition via the high press or recoveries from their defensive third before countering the other way.
“This is the highest level of football,” said Canada midfielder Jonathan Osorio. “The game is very, very fast, so the transitions are quicker. The way the ball moves is quicker, everything is faster than we think.”
Recovering the ball in Belgium’s half sounds difficult, but it’s doable. Like Egypt, the Netherlands was selective with its pressing when against Belgium in Nations League on Sept. 26. The common trait was setting up in a 5-2-3 or 5-3-2 to ensure maximum coverage out wide against the Belgian wingbacks.
Canada exhibited this vs. Japan with David and Hoilett harrying the Japanese defenders.
The only caveat is Canada needs to produce higher-quality shots from those situations in order to trouble Belgium.
Canada’s pace should behoove it against Belgium’s high defensive line in possession. If Egypt can capitalize, so can the Canadians.
“They play in transition and they have a lot of speed so we have to be prepared for this,” said Vertonghen of Canada’s strengths. “That’s why our game against Egypt was a good wake-up call. We cannot underestimate them.”
“They look like a team that’s very clear in their concepts,” Martinez said. “A very dynamic, competitive team that know their strengths, a team that loves to open the legs and use the big spaces, so we give them huge respect.”
The fact that Canada was effective in both offensive and defensive transitional moments against a rapid team like Japan proves that it is capable of replicating this strategy.
“Of course it brings confidence,” said Hutchinson. “We’re in a good state where we know that we can play against any team in the world.”
“I think we showed against a top-20 team that we can play at that intensity and at that pace,” said Osorio. “That’s a big confidence boost for us and for our midfield that we showed that we can keep that intensity.”
BELGIUM’S X-FACTOR: KEVIN DE BRUYNE (DUH)
There’s no stopping Kevin De Bruyne. You can only hope to limit the damage.
Even man-marking De Bruyne isn’t a guaranteed strategy. The playmaker will wait for his marker to face the ball and away from him, enabling De Bruyne to execute a run on the player’s blind side and into the box.
Considering Lukaku is injured and Eden Hazard is a bit-part player with Real Madrid, the onus will be on De Bruyne to lift Belgium’s attack.
De Bruyne loves drifting into the right half-space and dictating games from that area, so the task of marking him will likely be Sam Adekugbe’s undertaking.
Adekugbe, a complete two-way full-back in every sense of the term, will relish that challenge. The 27-year-old has gone from a squad player to a key starter within a year and could be one of several breakout candidates for Canada at this World Cup.
Countless observers will especially take notice if Adekugbe caps De Bruyne’s influence on the game.