MONTREAL – There’s plenty of good news for Canada ahead of its final group stage game at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
The Reds have four points out of a possible six, they have yet to concede a goal, they are sitting in first place in Group A and they are in firm control of their fate headed into Monday’s contest against the Netherlands at Olympic Stadium.
The midfield has held firm without Olympic hero Diana Matheson (still recovering from an injury), and fullbacks Josee Belanger and Allysha Chapman have been excellent—Belanger is a forward by trade, and her play on the right side of defence, where the injured Rhian Wilkinson normally starts, has been a pleasant surprise.
But let’s not gloss over the reality with this Canadian team—it’s very lucky to be in its current position, virtually assured of a spot in the Round of 16.
Canada has scored one goal over its two opening matches, and that came via a Christine Sinclair penalty in injury time that allowed the Reds to scrape out a 1-0 win over China. Against New Zealand, in what was supposed to be an easier game, Canada dodged a major bullet when Amber Hearn’s penalty attempt for the Kiwis smacked the crossbar.
For all their domination of possession against both China and New Zealand, Canada hasn’t been nearly dangerous enough when going forward, and has been routinely been let down by poor finishing in front of goal.
A missed penalty call in the opener and a penalty shot six inches lower in the second game, and we could easily be talking about Canada sitting on one point and needing a win against the Dutch in order to qualify for the next round.
Nothing is ever won during the group stage, and there are plenty examples of teams who struggle through the first round before coming good when the competition kicked into high gear. Italy was held to three consecutive draws in the group stage of the 1982 tournament, before turning on the style in the knockout round en route to winning its third World Cup.
So it’s entirely possible that Canada can still go on a deep run in this tournament, especially with the home crowds firmly behind them. But John Herdman’s team is going to have show much more and do a lot better than the pair of laboured performances it’s put in thus far.
Canada’s top two stars have to be their best players. So far, they haven’t—not on a consistent basis. After a player-of-the-game outing against China, midfielder Sophie Schmidt was far less involved and influential against New Zealand.
Aside from the perfectly taken penalty and the odd flash of brilliance, Sinclair has been average at best in this World Cup. This should hardly come as a surprise. Those who follow the team on a regular basis have been saying it ever since the London Olympics—Sinclair is not the player she once was, and she’s certainly no longer the type of player who can win games on her own. If she can’t score, then who will for Canada?
Somebody else must step up to take some of the goal-scoring burden off her shoulders. Nobody has thus far, though, and the problem is that Herdman is bereft of options coming off the bench.
This Canadian team is what it is right now: the exact sum of its parts. Nothing more.
Maybe skilled teenager Jessie Fleming can come in and give the attack some added punch. And youngster Adriana Leon could do no worse than veteran forward Melissa Tancredi, who’s offered next to nothing through the first two games.
Somehow and someway, Canada badly needs a spark. Not because it’s in dire need of points—they’ll finish no lower than third in Group A even if they lose to the Dutch, and have more than likely done enough to advance to the next round as one of the four third-place teams.
It needs a spark in order to create a bit of momentum, and to give potential second-round opponents something to think about, and some cause for concern. Because all they’re thinking about right now is how much they’d love to face this flat and unimposing Canadian side.
Monday’s game isn’t make or break for Canada. But it should give us a glimpse into what we can expect from them in the knockout round: either more of the same from the team that has just scraped by, or a side that is a serious threat to the top nations at this tournament.