Junior Hoilett looks like a sure starter as Canada beat Japan in final World Cup tune-up

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The Canadian men’s national team closed out their World Cup preparation with a late 2-1 win over a rotated Japan squad in Dubai on Thursday, six days before their opening match against Belgium.

Lucas Cavallini’s late penalty clinched a victory in second-half stoppage time following Steven Vitória’s equalizer off a corner in the 21st minute. Yuki Soma opened the scoring for Japan.

Here are three things we learned about Canada in Thursday’s friendly.

Hoilett to start vs. Belgium?

It was likely that Junior Hoilett was going to start against Belgium anyway, but his man-of-the-match display versus Japan bolstered his case.

The Reading midfielder was all over the pitch. He provided the sumptuous ball for Vitória’s goal, one of multiple threatening set-piece deliveries, four key passes and 67 touches, the most among any Canadian not named Vitoria or Kamal Miller.

“The mentality going into this game was they had the score tonight,” Canada coach John Herdman stated after the match. “I wasn't worried about what was happening at the other end. But I told them I was disappointed in the Uruguay game when they never delivered on the goals. I said ‘my kids in the front room never got to celebrate, your parents didn't’ so we just brought the joy of the goals and I think that's important.”

Hoilett’s ability to maneuver through tight spaces under pressure will be paramount to Canada’s success at the World Cup. The fast pace of play is right up his alley. Diligent defending off the ball, including some high recoveries to launch dangerous counters, will only please Herdman even more.

But the most important aspect is Hoilett’s experience. He’s thrived on the biggest stage in the Premier League and, having hit 50 caps with the national team, is one of the leaders in the room.

There might be a couple of changes to the lineup to face Belgium as Canada was missing Alphonso Davies and Stephen Eustaquio. Davies is now en route to Qatar from Munich while Eustaquio was rested as a precaution after a logjam of matches for Porto.

“It’s been next man up,” said Herdman of the team’s depth. “Different players were able to show their quality tonight.”

Make no mistake, it would be a surprise and a disappointment if Hoilett isn’t lining up on the pitch for the national anthem next Wednesday.

Aerial weaknesses persist

Canada’s transition defense was nearly flawless compared to the Uruguay match in September when it was carved open in the first half. There was discipline to track back, the midfield wasn’t stretched and everyone seemed to be organized.

It was a far cry from when La Celeste had tons of space to work in, especially in the first half, so that’s a strong improvement.

“I think we got what we wanted out of this game,” said Vitória. “We knew we were going to be tested against a clever side. We closed a few gaps that we wanted to close and we’re just getting started.”

One area of concern that still hasn’t been addressed, and likely won’t, is Canada’s aerial deficiencies at the back.

Vitória aside, and potentially Sam Adekugbe who can cope in the air decently well, there is worry that Canada’s World Cup opponents will exploit this. 

Japan certainly did with a lofted ball over Miller’s head after eight minutes.

For all the qualities Miller and Alistair Johnson are blessed with, aerial prowess isn’t one of them. Both have been beaten in the air, specifically via back-post crosses, in the qualifiers or even in the Uruguay defeat when Darwin Núñez struck.

There may not be much Canada can do to correct this issue, other than tasking Vitória with marking the aerial threats for Belgium, Croatia and Morocco, or manning the back post on defensive set pieces. 

Fighting back to win 2-1 after conceding an early goal shows that Canada’s resolve is still intact following the crushing loss in September.

“We’ve proven that the game doesn’t finish [early],” said Vitória. “If something like that happens, it shows a lot about our character, our brotherhood. We got tested, we turned things around and I think it all happened naturally. Obviously we don’t want to go down in any game, but we rebounded well and that shows a lot about our character.”

But there’s no doubt that this will be exposed again at the World Cup, just like the Uruguay loss and in various World Cup qualifying matches.

Johnston-Buchanan duo excites

There were several sharp performances from Canada, including Hoilett and Jonathan David. They were energetic with their pressing, recovered possession in dangerous areas and produced a few sublime chances.

However, the play of MLS alumn Tajon Buchanan and CF Montreal defender Johnston was breathtaking as well.

Both players combined nicely down the right flank, with Johnston given the freedom to advance into the final third with Hutchinson providing defensive cover. Buchanan’s final move wasn’t executed with exact precision, but it was clear that his dynamism was causing problems for Japan’s defense. Meanwhile, Johnston completed 29 of his 34 passes and won eight of his 11 defensive duels.

That’s vital for Canada, because there will be a lot of attention on Alphonso Davies on the opposite flank. If the right side of the attack can produce this significant of a threat, while maintaining its defensive solidity, it’ll boost the whole team’s outlook in Qatar.