VANCOUVER—Who says coaching doesn’t matter?
A key tactical change from Canada coach John Herdman proved the difference Sunday evening, as the home side defeated Switzerland 1-0 at BC Place in front of 53,855 spectators thanks to a goal from Josee Belanger, sending the Reds through to the quarterfinals of the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
In the early stages of this tournament, Herdman had used forward Belanger as a fullback in a bid to give his team some offensive urgency from the back.
But after a string of stale attacking performances in the group stage, in which Canada scored just two goals over three matches, Herdman switched it up, putting Belanger up front for this match.
“Belanger is a striker, first and foremost,” Herdman stated in the post-match news conference, adding she had only been used initially as a right fullback due to an injury to Rhian Wilkinson.
“She did really well for us, but naturally we wanted to get that pace up front. You see what happens when you bring that real international pace. That’s the most important part about international football, someone that really has a turn of pace to complement Sinc (Christine Sinclair) and Tanc (Melissa Tancredi)…that’s the most confident I’ve seen her.”
It’s a move that paid major dividends, as Belanger scored the lone goal in the 52nd minute with her left foot with a curling effort inside the penalty area. Wilkinson, who came back into the team at right fullback as a result of the switch, provided a cross into the area, and Christine Sinclair got on the end of it, controlling the ball before teeing it up for Belanger to finish.
“We always talk about the fact that at the international level there’s no perfect goal,” Belanger said. “So you need to take actions, just don’t think, and go. That’s actually what I did. … I kind of don’t remember how it happened. It just happened. I’m happy that I got the calm, and just didn’t hesitate, and went straight for the shot.”
Just as vital was a save in the 78th minute when Erin McLeod threw herself at the ball inside the six-yard area as Vanessa Bernauer turned and shot from close range after Ramona Bachmann crossed the ball in.
“She didn’t have a great amount to do,” Herdman said. “She took some great crosses, that’s her biggest strength, but then to be sharp and alert—in two games she’s done it for us now, right at the death. That’s the mark of a great goalkeeper. Right at the death, the concentration is there, and she’s out making a world-class save. All credit to her, she’s doing her bit for her country.”
There were other key moments as well.
The first half was a bit of a stalemate, with the teams exchanging no more than half chances. The first of those opportunities came from Bachmann, the player dubbed the “Alpen Messi” for her dribbling audacity. Eleven minutes in, she found herself alone in the area, and forced McLeod into a save from a tight angle.
Another scary moment for Canada came three minutes later, as Lara Dickenmann found herself wide open about six yards from goal. Bachmann delivered a ball into the box from the right following a smart set piece.
Canada’s best chance in the first half came in the 16th minute when Belanger hit a cross from the right side which ended up drifting toward goal, over goalkeeper Gaelle Thalmann and hitting the left post and bouncing back off the netminder’s foot before a defender cleared the danger.
Six minutes later, Melissa Tancredi shouted for a penalty after her cross from the right appeared to make contact with the arm of a Swiss defender, but referee Anna-Marie Keighley of New Zealand waived play to continue.
One of the better tackles in the first half came from Kadeisha Buchanan. The 19 year old pulled off a perfectly timed sliding challenge to neutralize a rush into the box from Swiss left fullback Rachel Rinast on 33 minutes, meaning the sides went into the break scoreless.
Danger loomed for Canada in the 62nd minute. Midfielder Ana Maria Crnogorcevic found herself with a free header in the area off a set piece taken by Martina Moser. Completely unmarked from about six yards out, she headed over the bar in a play that would go down as a big miss for the Swiss.
Belanger came close to doubling her tally in the 68th minute, striking on an open goal with Thalmann out of position, but Swiss captain Caroline Abbe stopped the ball on the line with her chest before clearing the danger.
With eight minutes remaining, Sinclair and Schmidt linked up well near the right corner flag, before Sinclair brilliantly weighted a ball for Schmidt to find herself alone on the right side of the box. The midfielder found substitute Jonelle Filigno open in the area, but the forward was stretching, and her ball went out for a corner.
McLeod got up well to claim a corner in stoppage time to ensure the victory for Canada.
Herdman also had some harsh words for critics of captain Christine Sinclair, who has yet to score from open play in this tournament.
“She doesn’t deserve to take stick,” Herdman declared. “She’s a world-class person, a world-class player. She gives everything to this team every single game. You put her in a different team, she’ll score 20 goals. But look around these goalscorers around this tournament. [Lotta] Schelin goes home without a goal, [Abby] Wambach pokes one in, Marta gets one. International football ain’t easy.
“Sinclair’s given everything, every single game. Off the pitch, she’s doing more than she’s ever done before to keep this team connected.
“She’s the pride of this country, and she’s going to stay that.”
Injuries are also playing a part here as this tournament continues. Tancredi was forced to leave the match in the 69th minute due to an awkward collision, and a number of players, according to Herdman, are taking injections for pain.
Schmidt and Buchanan are two players identified as needing those injections. Centre back Lauren Sesselman was seen limping in the mixed zone following the match.
The attendance of 53,855 sets a new all-time record for a Canadian home match, for either a men’s or women’s game.
Canada will face the winner of England and Norway in the quarterfinals. Those two sides square up in their Round of 16 match on Monday in Ottawa.
There are two obvious storylines either way. Norway’s coach Even Pellerud is a previous Canada coach, and England is Herdman’s country of birth.