Canada can hold heads high after giving Argentina a scare in Copa America opener

Soccer analyst James Sharman joins Danielle Michaud to break down Canada's first game in the Copa America vs. World's best Argentina, and why they should expect to advance from the group if they can duplicate their effort vs. Peru and Chile.

Former defender Bobby Lenarduzzi recalled a funny moment prior to Canada’s match against then-reigning European champion France in its FIFA World Cup debut at the 1986 tournament in Mexico.

“Mexican fans held up their fingers to indicate what the score would be. They needed both hands for France. They put up eight fingers, and we didn’t have any, so everyone assumed we were going to get hammered,” Lenarduzzi remembered.

In the end, Canada pushed a French team led by the legendary trio of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse to the brink before eventually suffering a heartbreaking 1-0 loss in the searing Mexican sun.

Fast forward to Thursday evening’s contest at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium where Canada made its Copa América debut by facing Lionel Messi and Argentina. The South Americans had lost just twice in their previous 58 games and entered this tournament as the No. 1 ranked team in the world and as the defending Copa América and World Cup champions.

Conventional wisdom suggested that Messi and his cohorts would pump plenty of goals past Canada and give them a valuable footballing lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. But such a browbeating never materialized. Much like their Canadian counterparts from 38 years ago in Mexico, the current Canada squad paid no mind to the critics and fans who predicted they’d get dusted by Argentina and put forth a brilliant effort before ultimately coming up short in a 2-0 loss.

Canada pushed and prodded Argentina for 90 minutes, causing the South Americans plenty of fits with its brave attacking play. Coach Jesse Marsch’s side can take pride in the fact it largely kept Argentina’s high-powered offence in check, thanks in large part to a man-of-the-match effort from goalkeeper Maxime Crépeau, who thwarted Messi no less than three times and denied Ángel Di María on a clear breakaway chance.

At the same time, the Canadians will be left scratching their heads after they valiantly went toe-to-toe with Argentina. This match marked Canada’s first ever competitive game against the reigning World Cup holders. It has to be said that the occasion hardly overwhelmed the Canadians, who gave as good as they got and might have taken a share of the points on offer had they been more clinical in front of goal.  
In the buildup to this game, Marsch said he wanted his team to be “fearless” when they faced the heavily favoured South American giants. That’s exactly what he got.

Fullback Alphonso Davies and wingback Tajon Buchanan used their speed down the flanks to unbalance Argentina’s defenders in moments of transition, while forwards Cyle Larin and Jonathan David effectively led the Canadian line up top. All four players had excellent looks on goal that they couldn’t put past goalkeeper Emiliano Martínez in a fabulous first half from Canada. 

But the best scoring opportunity fell to Stephen Eustáquio who connected on a header off a delightful cross played to the edge of the six-yard box from Larin. Eustáquio had plenty of purchase on it, but he directed it right at Martínez. It was a chance that the elegant central midfielder should have buried.

The Canadians paid for their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal early in the second half. Soon after the restart, Messi played a lovely through ball into the box for Alexis Mac Allister that Crépeau couldn’t quite get to after rushing out. Julián Álvarez was there to pick up the loose ball after Mac Allister’s touch and slammed it home inside the near post.  

Though Argentina was in the ascendancy, Canada nearly caught the South Americans out on a few occasions, with substitute Jacob Shaffelburg igniting the Reds’ attack. Eustáquio delivered an exquisite cross deep into the box to an unmarked David, who had a free header that he failed to put on target.  

Argentina dashed any hopes Canada harboured of mounting a comeback in the 88th minute when Messi’s fabulous pass into the box found Lautaro Martínez, who slipped his shot by Crépeau.  

Canada is now winless through Marsch’s first three games in charge, having previously been defeated by the Netherlands and battling France to a 0-0 draw in a pair of high-profile international friendlies earlier this month. But the early signs under Marsch, a 50-year-old Wisconsin native and a former MLS coach of the year, are promising and offer hope for a team that had taken a backwards step since qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Marsch is a disciple of German coach Ralf Rangnick, whom he served under as an assistant at Bundesliga club RB Leipzig. Rangnick’s teams — he currently is coaching Austria at Euro 2024 — play a fairly aggressive, pressing style that puts great physical demands on players who are required to engage opponents right away in order to win possession. Rangnick’s philosophies have greatly influenced Marsch, and it hardly comes as a surprise he has set up Canada to play in a similar fashion.

It worked quite effectively in the opening 45 minutes against the Netherlands, Marsch’s first game at the helm of Canada, when the Reds bossed around the Dutch and got to the halftime break at 0-0. But then the bottom fell out for the Canadians, who ran out of gas and conceded a quartet of second-half goals en route to a 4-0 loss.

Marsch quite wisely adapted in Canada’s next contest a few days later against the French. Instead of sticking to the rigours of an aggressive press, the Canadians showed more patience in trying to slow the game down, were far more organized and were intelligent in their movement on and off the ball.

He took a similar approach against Argentina, opting for a more pragmatic style that saw Canada time its pressing actions to perfection to create a number of chances on the counter attack, rather than returning to the high-intensity game that only worked for 45 minutes against the Dutch. 

Canada’s mid-defensive block thwarted Argentina for long stretches, forcing the South Americans to play around them, rather than trying to go through them. This ended up limiting Messi’s influence on the night – he had a hand in setting up both goals, but he had a relatively quiet first half and didn’t run roughshod through the Canadian defence like so many pundits expected.

Things were so uncomfortable for Argentina in the second half that coach Lionel Scaloni made tactical adjustments in order to hold onto his one-goal lead. In the ultimate sign of respect for Canada, he subbed out Di María for Giovani Lo Celso and brought on defender Nicolas Otamendi on for midfielder Leandro Paredes, setting his team up in a back five to better deal with Canada’s electric counter. 

In the end, Argentina dashed Canada’s hopes of a comeback with Martínez’s late goal. But this was a game Canada was always expected to lose. What wasn’t expected was how it genuinely frustrated the World Cup champions and made them work a little bit harder for the win. Canada walked away empty handed, but could take pride in its performance. 

If only three points were awarded for moral victories, Canada would be top of the Group A table at the Copa América and looking down upon Argentina. Instead, they were left wondering what might have been on a night that will go down as one of the most memorable in the history of the Canadian men’s team. 

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