Canada - Croatia pre

UMM SALAL, Qatar – From a Canadian perspective, head coach John Herdman’s “F– Croatia” line is well in the past.

The pre-match press conference with Herdman and midfielder Stephen Eustáquio kicked off as expected, with the now-infamous newspaper cover featuring Herdman as the main topic of conversation.

“My wife's coming after you guys," Herdman joked with a Croatian reporter from 24sata, the tabloid that published the cover. "She wishes she had that guy. I've got a bit more of a belly than that. I've been eating too much."

Herdman was noticeably self-deprecating with his answers on the subject. Even when asked about who the favorite is for Sunday’s game, both Herdman and Eustáquio took long pauses before the latter finally answered a rephrased question.

“We were favorites to not do a good job in this group,” said Eustáquio. “We showed that we can outplay Belgium, so anything can happen at this point.”

But Croatia aren’t willing to let bygones be bygones yet.

“We respect everyone and we expect opposing teams to respect us,” said coach Zlatko Dalić. “This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We’re the World Cup runners-up. It’s not Brazil, Spain, it’s us.”

“I second the coach’s thoughts,” added forward Ivan Perišić. “I can’t wait for the game tomorrow.”

Group F reality

No matter what, this should be a scintillating contest. Croatia will be desperate to make Herdman eat his words, while Canada needs to avoid defeat to stay alive.

A loss ends Canada’s hopes of advancing to the Round of 16 after just two games. That’d make Thursday's Group F finale against Morocco a dead rubber.

But a draw or win means it’s all to play for in the country’s first men’s World Cup trip in 36 years.

“It's going to be a defining moment for Canada in this World Cup,” Herdman stated. “It’s one of those do-or-die games now that we have to perform in.”

It’s a tall task against the reigning World Cup finalists (Russia 2018), but this is “New Canada” as Herdman likes to refer to this new generation of players. They are playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world, in the UEFA Champions League, and have slowly acclimatized to this level.

That should have a positive effect on dealing with any pressure or adapting to any in-game adjustments.

“Against top teams and against top players, any half-second that you’re switched off, any detail that you don't get it correctly, that's a goal against,” said Eustáquio. “I think we felt that against Belgium.”

Yet there was little deviation from Canada’s approach to the 1-0 loss to Belgium. Les Rouges played on their terms and it nearly paid off with a result.

But lethal finishing and capitalizing in those high-pressure moments separate the elite from the rest of the pack.

Now Canada have to prove it can accomplish that phase of their evolution.

Keys to Croatia

Despite the proactive style exhibited versus Belgium, a new plan will be required for Croatia. Facing a world-class midfield trio of Luka Modrić, Mateo Kovačić, and Marcelo Brozović will do that.

Rotation should come into play, but Herdman is taking the one-game-at-a-time mentality with his team selection.

“We’re not thinking about cards or anything like that,” Herdman said. “I've looked at what this game needs, it's going to need different things to Belgium and we've got a full roster to choose from.”

Alistair Johnston and Alphonso Davies are both on yellow-card warnings. Davies is expected to start regardless, although Johnston could make way for Sam Adekugbe with Richie Laryea retaining his place at right back.

Given how magnificently Morocco's Achraf Hakimi fared against Croatia, a fullback with Laryea’s qualities might be the wise play.

But so, too, would the addition of a third midfielder to match up against Croatia’s trio. Jonathan Osorio and 20-year-old CF Montréal phenom Ismaël Koné would be the go-to options to join Eustáquio and Atiba Hutchinson.

It might be an extra special day for Hutchinson, who could earn his 100th cap for the national team. Having waited nearly 20 years to debut at the World Cup, it would be a testament to his upstanding service to Canadian soccer for him reach 100 appearances on this stage.

Hopefully, for his sake, it’s not marred by an early World Cup exit and he can log his 101st cap in a do-or-die matchup with Morocco next week.

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