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Canada Suffers Cruel Defeat vs. Belgium, but Shows It Belongs

A meager performance was enough for the Red Devils to sneak away with a win, but Canada more than held its own with Group F’s heavyweight.

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Poor Canada. Until the 44th minute it was, by far, the better team in its World Cup opener, before a quick free kick and a fine finish from Michy Batshuayi gave Belgium a 1–0 victory it barely deserved. And so Canada, having done very little wrong, suffers the ignominy of becoming the first team to play four World Cup matches and fail to score in any of them. It has, at least, some way to go before matching Bulgaria’s record of 17 World Cup games before its first win.

The feeling in 1986, when it was drawn in an impossibly difficult group with France, Hungary and the USSR, was that it had acquitted itself well, conceding just five goals across the three games. Today, it was not about keeping the score down, or a brave performance against obviously superior opponents. Today, it should have won. It can still dream of going through to the knockout stage. It had 22 shots. Its xG by halftime was above 2. It missed a penalty. And yet it went in behind at the break, undone by the most basic of sucker punches.

The Canada coach John Herdman was understandably pleased with everything but the result and was keen to place the game in historical context. “They showed tonight that they do belong here,” he said. “It’s been a long time. The fans walked away proud and feeling like we are a football nation.”

Belgium’s golden generation may have finished third in Russia four years ago but it has since aged, without much turnover. There’s a press box joke that you can just cut-and-paste its player profiles from the last tournament; there’s no need to learn about anybody new. Six of this starting lineup was over 30 and they looked it, struggling to deal with the pace and intensity of Canada. “I don’t think we played well enough as a team,” said midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, who admitted he was surprised to be named man of the match. “I don’t think we found any solutions and the momentum was with Canada. We didn’t find a way to break through their press.” His angry discussion with center back Toby Alderweireld after the goal perhaps suggested just how central he is to the setup of the team.

Canada’s Alphonso Davies reacts after missing a penalty vs. Belgium.

Davies couldn’t convert on a penalty against Courtois, but Canada had a myriad of other chances to score.

The game could hardly have begun worse for Belgium, which found itself pinned back to a startling degree. Richie Laryea, ghosting in from the right, was a perpetual threat, linking dangerously with Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan. It was Buchanan’s shot that was blocked by the outstretched arm of Yannick Carrasco to earn Canada an 11th-minute penalty. Alphonso Davies, presented with the perfect chance to score Canada’s first World Cup goal, struck his shot unconvincingly to his left where Thibaut Courtois, Golden Glove winner of the 2018 tournament, made the save.

It felt like only a matter of time before Canada scored. But time and again the final pass was misplaced or the shot miscued—Alistair Johnston drew a smart save from Courtois with an angled drive and Buchanan fired a Laryea cross over. A couple of tight refereeing calls went the wrong way. There was another decent shout for a penalty when Axel Witsel seemed to stand on Laryea’s foot. “I thought at times there was one pass too many round the box,” Herdman said. “We need that ruthlessness. But I’m not going to complain too much: Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it’s not.”

But it was Belgium who took the lead with its only meaningful chance of the first half. There was no great craft to it, just a free-kick down the middle from Alderweireld, followed by a powerful finish on the bounce from Batshuayi. And from that Canada never really recovered. The introduction of Amadou Onana for Youri Tielemans for Belgium changed the game. The 21-year-old has been very impressive for 17th-place Everton this season. He has had plenty of practice in shoring up a struggling side. Canada never regained the same zip after Onana came on. It wasn’t that Belgium improved particularly as an attacking force, but it at least had a breakwater in front of the defense.

“Was this technically our worst performance at a tournament?” asked the Belgium manager Roberto Martinez. “Yes. But to be able to win when you don’t play well doesn’t happen by accident. We have been developing six years together. We had to defend really well and we needed our goalkeeper at our very best. The performance doesn’t shock me. This is not a format where you have five six weeks to prepare. Today we had six days together. You will see teams growing as the group phases go on.”

He spoke of there being two World Cups: the group stage as teams develop and then the real business of the knockouts. That is always true to an extent, but perhaps more than ever this time. If Belgium is to challenge again, there is a lot of development to come.

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