It's official: The Canadian men's national team will play Belgium, Croatia and Morocco in Group F at the 2022 World Cup.
Not only did Canada avoid the daunting "Group of Death" known as Group E, it managed to secure a balanced group that could enable the Canadians to progress to its first-ever knockout stage at a World Cup.
Now the team has around seven months to prepare for the tournament. Concacaf Nations League begins in June, with the draw being conducted this Monday, so that allows Les Rouges to have a few competitive games leading up to the World Cup.
Canada coach John Herdman did reveal that there is a "small window" before the Nations League to host a friendly at home. Whether any teams are willing to travel for that date remains to be seen.
"That will probably line us up to head to Europe in the fall," said Herdman following Friday's World Cup draw. "I think that's a critical step for this team. We've had to play Concacaf opponents for the last four years on this never-ending World Cup qualification scheme, 20-odd games, which has starved us of the chances to play against the De Bruyne's and help these players really understand what that level looks and feels like."
Since Canada is facing European and African teams, logic dictates that the federation will schedule friendlies against countries from those regions.
It's not as simple as making a sporting decision, though.
"I think there's commercial opportunities, there's things that we have to think about that are going to help the grassroots of our sport, the coaching education in our sport," said Herdman. "This is what this opportunity is, it's more than just playing at a World Cup, it's everything that can raise the game in this country."
As for Canada's opponents at the World Cup, here is an in-depth breakdown of all three teams. Keep in mind that with seven months until the World Cup, plus a transfer window and a new season starting this summer, a lot will change.
FIFA Ranking: No. 2
Odds to win World Cup: 13/1
How they qualified: Won Group E of UEFA qualifying with 20 points.
Predicted starting XI (3-4-3): Thibaut Courtois; Timothy Castagne, Jason Denayer, Jan Vertonghen; Thomas Meunier, Axel Witsel, Youri Tielemans, Yannick Carrasco; Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin De Bruyne.
The attack. Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku might not be in top form at the moment, but they are usually excellent with the national team. Plus, Kevin De Bruyne is always a threat, whether he's in front of a double pivot or drifting inside from the right into that half-space that he loves so much.
But the blueprint for Canada to negate that attacking rhythm can be found in Belgium's Euro 2020 quarterfinal loss to Italy. When the Azzurri pressed Belgium off goal kicks, the Italian forwards marked the defenders while the trio focused on the Belgian midfielders. That disrupted some of the buildup.
Obviously Canada can't press Belgium for 90 minutes, so they will likely utilize another strategy for the majority of the game. Italy sat back in a 4-5-1, which negated the pivot's abilities and protected the flanks against the marauding wingbacks.
That can be a strategy to silence Belgium, which will be easier said than done, of course.
The defence could be in limbo. Jason Denayer and Timothy Castagne appear to be locked in, but Jan Vertonghen is slowing down and coach Roberto Martinez has experimented with youngsters Arthur Theate and Siebe Van der Heyden on the left side of the back three. Whatever the case, there will be spaces to exploit for Canada's speedy attack, especially with Belgium's attack-minded wingbacks.
Belgium reached the World Cup semifinals in 2018 and was on the brink of another semi at last summer's Euros if not for wasteful finishing against Italy in the quarters.
But it's now or never for the Red Devils. The golden generation is in its primes, so failure to reach a final will be viewed as a lost opportunity for this group.
FIFA Ranking: No. 16
Odds to win World Cup: 51/1
How they qualified: Won Group H of UEFA qualifying with 23 points.
Predicted starting XI (3-5-2): Dominik Livakovic; Duje Caleta-Car, Someone, Josko Gvardiol; Ivan Perisic, Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic, Mario Pasalic, Josip Juranovic; Nikola Vlasic, Andrej Kramaric.
It's the midfield, hands down. Even at 36 years old, Luka Modric continues to excel on the big stage. He's had man-of-the-match performances for Real Madrid in 2022, though the question is whether he'll keep this up by November.
Then there's Marcelo Brozovic, arguably Inter's most important player. His ability to drop between the defence and orchestrate games while contributing defensively makes him one of the top deep-lying midfielders in Europe.
Mario Pasalic is the current starter, and while he's no slouch, Mateo Kovacic's inclusion would transform an already talented trio. Kovacic is all-action but is excellent at progressing the ball into the box via dribbling or passes and is a defensive stalwart to boot.
Even the defence, which was once seen as a weakness, is now improved with Duje Caleta-Car and Josko Gvardiol solidifying spots on the back line. That led to a solid 0.66 expected goals (xG) conceded per 90 minutes in qualifying.
The forwards aren't prolific. Whether it's Andrej Kramaric, Nikola Vlasic or any other option, they won't be too threatening.
Anyone who watched Croatia's thrilling Euro 2020 round-of-16 matchup against Spain might think otherwise. The game finished 5-3 after extra time.
Part of this was down to Croatia's high press being so easy to bypass. The other was Spain neglecting the flanks whenever the Croatians did press. That led to a litany of chances, specifically down the flanks with Spain's full-backs playing so high up the pitch.
If Canada can be less liberal on the flanks when getting pressed, and remain compact defensively, then it should reduce Croatia's high-danger chances.
There are some quality youngsters coming through but for Perisic, Modric and potentially Brozovic – at least in his prime – this will be the final kick at the can.
It's not expected that Croatia will make it to another World Cup final, although a run to the quarterfinals isn't out of the question, especially with that midfield holding down the fort.
FIFA Ranking: No. 24
Odds to win World Cup: 248-1
How they qualified: Defeated DR Congo 5-2 on aggregate in the third round of CAF qualifying.
Predicted starting XI (4-3-3): Yassine Bounou; Achraf Hakimi, Romain Saiss, Nayef Aguerd, Adam Masina; Selim Amallah, Sofyan Amrabat, Aymen Barkok; Munir El Haddadi, Youssef En-Nesyri, Sofiane Boufal.
Achraf Hakimi and Munir El Haddadi versus Sam Adekugbe and Alphonso Davies could be appointment viewing.
Morocco's right flank boasts one of the best right-backs in the world in Hakimi and the dynamic Munir, who plies his trade with Sevilla. In the previous round of qualifying, coach Vahid Halihodzic switched to a 3-5-2 to further highlight those strengths and that's where a significant portion of its open-play attacks were generated.
When analyzing the pass maps from those two legs, it's evident how much more proactive Hakimi (No. 2) became in those games, even for his standard.
If Canada's left side is the main threat, then the Atlas Lions' right flank will be equally dangerous.
There aren't a lot of weaknesses, even though Morocco might not strike the average fan as being the most complete team in this group.
Morocco averaged 2.14 xG and 0.52 xG conceded over the last calendar year. Those are formidable stats when considering Canada posted 1.57 xG and 0.86 xG allowed during the final round of Concacaf qualifying.
However, the form of Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi, both teammates at Sevilla, has declined. Munir barely plays, while En-Nesyri has scored just three goals in 15 games after a prolific 2020-21 season. His underlying numbers are still strong, but the production just hasn't been there and now Anthony Martial is starting ahead of En-Nesyri.
If that doesn't change, Tarik Tissoudali could be the go-to option for Morocco at the World Cup.
Morocco was in the group of death at the 2018 World Cup with Iran, Spain and Portugal. That spurned what could've been a solid run from the Atlas Lions.
Now they are in a more accessible group. For that reason, Morocco will be cautiously optimistic about progressing to the round of 16, just like Canada.