That’s how Canadian women’s coach John Herdman described Zimbabwe ahead of Saturday’s group stage match at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. Although they are ranked 93rd in the world, they qualified out of Africa, which is never an easy task. Zimbabwe also scored against Ger-many, in a physical, chippy affair to open their first Olympics.
However, for Canada, its second match of the tournament and first ever meeting versus the Af-ricans was business as usual. The Reds were able to contain Zimbabwe’s unpredictable style to claim three points, and are another step closer to clinching a quarterfinal spot. Canada’s young group also picked up some valuable lessons in the win.
Here are my three takeaways from Canada’s 3-1 victory over Zimbabwe:
Lineup changes for Canada
Sabrina D’Angelo’s start in goal was not only her Olympic debut, but it also marked her first ac-tion since breaking her wrist in late May. The 23-year-old was beat late after she was caught way off her line. It’ll prove to be a learning moment for the young ‘keeper. Otherwise, she only touched the ball a handful of times and gained some important experience on the Olympic stage. She was also able to give Stephanie Labbe a day off, as the starter did take a bit of a knock in the team’s opening win versus Australia.
The goalkeeper rotation echoes what Herdman did in London four years ago. Although Erin McLeod was the no. 1, backup Karina LeBlanc faced South Africa in Canada’s second game of the 2012 group stage. LeBlanc earned a clean sheet in that match and gave McLeod some well-deserved rest.
Central defender Rebecca Quinn, who had a strong showing as a substitute in Canada’s opener versus Australia, started alongside Kadeisha Buchanan vs. Zimbabwe, and hardly looked out of place. Unfortunately for Buchanan, she picked up her second yellow of the tournament, which means she’ll be out Tuesday against Germany.
Josee Belanger was solid in her first Olympic appearance. The fullback pushed up high on the flanks and fed in the timely cross to Janine Beckie, who gave Canada a 3-0 lead in the 35th minute. Belanger also matched up well with the physicality of Zimbabwe on the right side.
Budding Beckie-Sinclair chemistry
Beckie opened the scoring for a second straight game, looking calm and composed after receiv-ing another great pass from Christine Sinclair seven minutes in. At 21 years of age, Beckie has already netted 12 goals in her young international career and is forming a formidable partnership up top with the captain.
What stands out most with this duo is the space Sinclair is able to create for Beckie. Sinclair’s playmaking has been underrated throughout her career and understandably so, given her scor-ing prowess. But, having the chance to work alongside an excellent finisher such as Beckie al-lows Sinclair to draw defenders to her and feed well-placed balls. It’s just another example of how Sinclair is passing the torch.
What else can be said about Sinclair? Over the span of three Olympics, she’s scored 10 goals (two in 2008, six in 2012 and two so far in 2016). The 33-year-old continues to make things look easy on the pitch, but what stands out most is how her game continues to evolve. She’s no longer carrying this team on her back, which gives her more freedom and flexibility.
Tale of two halves
It was crucial for Canada to not let its foot off the gas versus Zimbabwe. With a day of travel looming ahead of their final group stage match against Germany on Tuesday, the Canadians focused on making the most of their set plays, keeping their shape, controlling the middle and connecting their passes. Some worrisome moments came late, as the team seemed to lose their concentration and Zimbabwe countered on that lack of focus to erase a potential clean sheet for D’Angelo.
Canada will have a massive task next versus the European champions. They won’t have as much time on the ball and space will be limited against Germany. While they had an excellent opening half versus Zimbabwe, things were a little sloppy from the Reds in the final 45 minutes.
Since Canada will be without the services of Buchanan on Tuesday, they’ll have to rely on their depth. In 2012, left fullback Lauren Sesselmann was forced into a centre-back role due to inju-ries. So far, at this edition of the tournament, card trouble has plagued the back line. The up-coming match versus Germany will make it three straight that the central defence duo will not be the same. It looks like once the group stage is said and done, Quinn will have, perhaps unex-pectedly, played the most minutes out of the defenders.
Notes: As mentioned, Canada’s next match is Tuesday facing Germany in Brasilia. It’ll be used as a measuring stick since the Canadians have yet to beat the Germans in 12 meet-ings…Central defender Shelina Zadorsky will be back after serving her one-game suspension for receiving a red card in Canada’s opener against Australia…Kadeisha Buchanan picked up her second yellow and she’ll be unavailable against the Germans…Josee Belanger, Jessie Fleming and Rhian Wilkinson are also sitting on yellow cards…Four players made their Olympic debuts versus Zimbabwe: Belanger, Sabrina D’Angelo, Nichelle Prince and Deanne Rose. That means everybody on the Canadian roster has already seen minutes at this tournament.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop, John Molinaro and James Sharman) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.