UMM SALAL, Qatar – If Saturday led to alarm bells ringing for the Canadian men’s national team, Sunday silenced them – even if it’s temporary.
Alphonso Davies, Stephen Eustáquio and Milan Borjan were all carrying knocks, some old – in the case of Davies and Eustaquio – and some new to the point where head coach John Herdman raised concerns about their status to face Belgium in Wednesday's Group F opener (2 pm ET | FOX & Telemundo in United States; TSN in Canada).
Canadians gasped at the prospect of losing a significant chunk of the team’s spine for its first men’s World Cup game in 36 years. Surely the Canadian soccer gods, often so harsh to the community, would spare them.
Eustaquio was attempting and completing hard sprints and stops, while Davies ran with less intensity than his teammates but still finished the drill without any apparent issues.
“We want all our players to be ready and feeling at their best,” said midfielder Jonathan Osorio after Sunday’s practice. “For one of our best players [Davies] to say that he's ready to go, this honestly is a confidence booster for us. Of course we want him on the field, this is our star player.”
But the absence of Eustáquio was equally crucial in Thursday’s friendly victory over Japan. Samuel Piette started in his place next to Atiba Hutchinson but appeared to be off the pace against one of the more fluid World Cup teams.
Eustaquio is as smooth as they come, be it in possession, covering ground defensively or chipping in with goals as we’ve seen in recent weeks. The 25-year-old Porto midfielder had four goals and one assist in the club’s final five matches before the winter break.
But once Ismaël Koné replaced Piette, the midfield’s fluidity completely shifted. Even Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye made an impact against a team that’s as aggressive with their pressing and fast on the ball as anyone else at the tournament.
With Belgium, Croatia (Nov. 27) and Morocco (Dec. 1) on the horizon, that’s an encouraging development for this group.
“I think we showed against a Top 20 team that we can play at that intensity, at that pace and win at that pace,” said Osorio. “This is the highest level of football. The game is very, very fast, and so the transitions are quicker. The way the ball moves is quicker, everything is faster than we think.”
Those transition moments might behoove Canada given their pace up front, from Davies to Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David. Teams will be wary of the threat, but it’s easier said than done to shut them down.
That’s why it’s a decent bet that Canada should score their first-ever goal at a men’s World Cup, and there are a number of candidates who could claim the honor.
“I think everyone has this little thought that they want to score the first goal because it’s going to be the first [Canadian] goal in [World Cup] history,” said David. “Of course for me to score would be an amazing feeling.”
David’s quiet-yet-confident demeanor was on full display at Canada’s training ground at Umm Salal SC. He is certain that the Canadians can upset Belgium despite being underdogs, and based on the progress the team has made in recent weeks, it’s a fair assessment.
It’s obviously an entirely different prospect to go from a half-empty stadium in Dubai against half of Japan’s starters to facing a full-strength Belgium with all the eyes of the world fixated on every move.
But this is a squad that has believed, and risen to every challenge, on this unlikely journey. It has been diligent with every duty, including tracking back defensively in numbers off an attacking set piece in the 90th minute. Those little details will be key and the squad is aware.
“[Belgium] is a team that if you give them an inch of space, they have players that can hurt you with an inch of space,” said Osorio. “Collectively, we have to be very tight as a team, finding the right times to put pressure on them, and trying to get them to make mistakes. Offensively, we have to be fluid, keep them guessing as to what kind of positions different players are taking.”
From the first round of World Cup qualifiers in March 2021, Canada have been preparing for this. Meticulous tactical sessions, months of chemistry building and accumulation of results have led to this moment.
“I think at this level, players are clever and can see a game plan very quickly - if it's not fluid, if it's not creative, if it's not adaptable. I think the good thing about our team is that we're very adaptable,” Osorio added.
With or without key players, the adaptability will be tested like never before.