Three big questions facing Canada in pre-World Cup friendly vs. Qatar

Larin Canada training

Only three matches remain until the Canadian men’s national team plays at their first World Cup in 36 years.

The first of three friendlies on the docket is against hosts Qatar on Friday in Vienna, Austria (1 pm ET | OneSoccer). It might not be the sexiest matchup on paper, but with crucial prep time lost in the June window due to a labor dispute between the players and the federation, every game counts as the 2022 World Cup looms.

Here are three big questions for Canada ahead of their friendly versus Qatar.

Will Canada stick to the pivot?

Atiba Hutchinson is still recovering from a preseason bone bruise. Jonathan Osorio didn’t travel for this camp as he recovers from a head injury. That leaves Canada with just four out-and-out midfielders between Stephen Eustaquio, Samuel Piette, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Ismaël Koné.

Even before Osorio was ruled out, all signs pointed towards coach John Herdman sticking with a double pivot in midfield. Now it’s all but certain.

That’s been Canada’s go-to system for a while. Since November’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica in World Cup Qualifying, Herdman has utilized some variation of a double pivot in nine of their last 10 games. That doesn’t mean they solely use two players centrally, though. Junior Hoilett has occasionally tucked inside off the ball to form more solidity in the central channels.

The only question now surrounds who will be starting with Stephen Eustaquio, who enters this window in terrific form with Porto. Eustaquio has been heavily involved in the final third for the Portuguese giants recently, so whoever partners him has to be equally effective on both ends of the pitch for the duo to thrive.

Kaye is still gaining match fitness, so the Toronto FC man might be better suited as a substitute. Koné has been rotated in and out of the lineup with CF Montréal, although his defensive instincts still need improving, so that leaves club teammate Samuel Piette as the final option.

It could be viewed as a last resort but Piette is an ideal candidate here. He has experience playing in a double pivot with Montréal and has grown tremendously in the final third. Piette’s long passes and switches over the top of the defense can be a weapon against Qatar’s compact 3-5-2 formation, plus he remains diligent off the ball.

Will Jonathan David play as a lone striker?

Junior Hoilett being named captain in Hutchinson’s absence indicates that he should start on Friday. Alphonso Davies is Canada’s best player, so he’ll be in the lineup along with the red-hot Jonathan David.

That likely leaves no room for a strike partner in Ike Ugbo, Cyle Larin or Lucas Cavallini, though.

David has been deployed as a lone striker with Lille over the past few weeks and scored in a 2-1 win against Toulouse on Sept. 17. Ideally, the 22-year-old would be playing off a prototypical No. 9 but if he needs to start as a lone striker, David is best suited in a fluid frontline with a rapid pace of play. Canada are normally flexible and play on the front foot, so there shouldn’t be any problems there.

The real concern focuses on Ugbo, Larin and Cavallini. The former’s minutes are dwindling at Troyes, Larin is hardly playing for Club Brugge and Cavallini is serving a four-match suspension with the Vancouver Whitecaps. None of the other center forwards are in optimal shape to start in this window.

The hope from Canada’s perspective is they’ll regain some brashness by returning to a national-team setting where a lot of players raise their games. Perhaps a substitute appearance or two will lead to a key goal and steer them back on track looking ahead to the World Cup.

Will we see the kids?

It’s unlikely that they’ll start but Theo Corbeanu, Luca Koleosho and Ismaël Koné can play pivotal roles in this match off the bench.

Corbeanu earned a well-deserved call-up after scoring three times in his last six games for Blackpool in England’s Championship. His dynamism, dribbling abilities and eye for goal will test the mettle of a tired Qatari defense.

Koleosho, who just turned 18 earlier this month, is back in a Canadian camp after his first call-up in June. Eligible for USA, Nigeria and Italy, the Espanyol teenager can’t be cap-tied in this window if he appears in a friendly for Canada so this is a win-win situation for all parties. Like Corbeanu, Koleosho is a terrific dribbler who is blessed with top vision for a young player, so he could also be a weapon from the bench.

Then there’s Koné, who has turned heads for CF Montréal this season. His smoothness on the dribble, calmness and vision will be vital if Canada need to unlock Qatar’s back line, or an offensive injection in general with few options in the midfield.