TORONTO – It’s now five games and counting for Canada’s defense.
A quick glance at the results makes it apparent: Defending is the main reason Canada are sitting in first place in their group halfway through the current round of World Cup qualifying. In fact, Les Rouges haven’t conceded a goal dating back to Feb. 29, a 3-1 loss to Armenia in Cyprus.
While Canada’s strikers have only found the net twice in 270 minutes of qualifying action in this round, the backline is giving them a chance to win. But rather than attributing his team's success to the work of the four players at the back alone, Canadian coach Stephen Hart believes they’re successful because of the "all hands on deck" attitude his players bring to the defensive side of the game.
“Collectively, it’s not just the defense,” Hart said in his postgame press conference after Friday night's 1-0 win over Panama at BMO Field. “It’s good work by the midfield. The defense got battered around as you could see. They can hold the ball up, they like to play good combinations but we have nerve – defended with some intelligence and we got the result on the back of good defending.”
While Kevin McKenna expertly marshalled the back line, Julian de Guzman dropped back well to help as a bridge from the defense to the midfield when building out of the back. The 4-2-3-1 formation Hart employed allowed de Guzman and Will Johnson the freedom to drop back and add numbers in defense when needed.
Panama, on the other hand, have made no secret that they’ll be out for revenge and want to reclaim top spot in Tuesday's rematch in Panama City (8 pm ET, Sportsnet).
“We will try to recover first place,” Panamanian coach Julio Dely Valdés was quoted as saying in Panamanian newspaper El Diario Libre de Panama on Sunday. ”Winning on Tuesday virtually seals passage.”
Hart knows full well that the dangerous forward pairing of Luis Tejada and Blas Pérez will likely be called upon to capitalize on Panama’s chances and he fully expects his team to be up to the challenge.
“You saw two special moments in the game," Hart said. "It didn’t score for them but you saw how quick they can change the game so we have confidence we can play with anybody in CONCACAF.”
One thing that Canada haven’t had to face yet in the five-game span is a particularly hostile opposition crowd. Three of the games in their run of clean sheets were in Toronto, one in a largely empty stadium in Florida and one against a vocal but small crowd in Cuba. That’s likely to change on Tuesday – a sell-out crowd of 31,000 fans is expected, and will help give Canada's defense its toughest test yet.