Canada were unlucky not to get a result against Belgium in their first World Cup game since 1986 as Michy Batshuayi’s goal proved decisive at the Ahmed bin Ali Stadium.
John Herdman’s side were left behind by rue Alphonso Davies’ missed penalty in the 10th minute, and Batshuayi put Belgium ahead late in the first half.
Canada continued to create chances throughout the game, but couldn’t get a breakthrough. The previous Group F match had ended 0-0 between Morocco and Croatia, leaving Canada down and Belgium up.
Nick Miller, Sam Stejskal and Maram AlBaharna analyze the key talking points…
Eustachio nutmeg personified fearless Canada
Stjeskal: Alphonso Davies’ penalty miss became a near-perfect encapsulation of Canada’s night: full of swagger, full of chances and ultimately lacking in front of goal.
They were playing their first World Cup match in 36 years and facing the No. 2 team in the FIFA World Rankings, but Canada was all over Belgium from the opening whistle. They really had no reason to play with such confidence, but they took the spirit of their charismatic coach Herdman, dominating Belgium in almost every way. They relentlessly frustrated them in possession, allowed them no time or space and created opportunity after opportunity with fearless and incisive attacks.
Tajon Buchanan was an absolute menace down the right and Richie Laryea caused plenty of problems down that side as well. Almost everyone on Canada’s roster played with obscene levels of personality, but these two, along with Kamal Miller and Stephen Eustaquio, went above and beyond in their expressiveness.
Stephen Eustaquio was part of Canada’s brilliant display (Photo: Robbie Jay Barratt – AMA/Getty Images)
Eustaquio had a particularly daring moment shortly after the break. He received a pass from Laryea on the right-hand side of the attacking third, turned to the center and calmly and casually nutmeged Kevin De Bruyne before curling a cross to the back post that David headed wide.
It was another madcap from Canada, and another example of the simultaneous confidence and wastefulness that defined their first World Cup game in 36 years.
Martínez relies too much on Belgium’s old guard
Miller: Martínez’s starting line-up was full of familiar faces, especially to English audiences. There’s Toby Alderweireld, there’s Jan Vertonghen, there’s Eden Hazard, all the old friends, together again.
The problem is “old” seems to be the key word. This was a tried and trusted team, 11 safe picks sent to do a job against a theoretically inferior nation. It has been a frequent criticism of Martinez in the Belgian job that he relies too easily on players he knows and ignores some younger and more exciting options. I could see it in the way they played, as despite the victory they were quite thick, lacking inspiration.
Eden Hazard’s selection is a case in point: he’s played three La Liga games for Real Madrid this season, but not only has he been there from the start, he’s been there as captain. Wouldn’t Leandro Trossard, in sensational form for Brighton, have been a more inspiring selection? Could Wout Faes have been a better option at the back?
Belgium cruised to a 1-0 win, but will face tougher tests later in the tournament. You wonder if Martínez’s conservatism in the selection will cost them.
Davies’ missed penalty proves costly
Stjeskal: Davies is an incredible talent, a Champions League winner, a tantalizing young player with an inspiring life story – he is the face of this Canada team.
It was perhaps only natural that he confidently called for the ball for a penalty after Yannick Carrasco used his hand to block a Buchanan shot.
But it was still more than strange to see him stomp on the spot in the 11th minute. It would have been a great narrative if Davies had given Canada an early lead on Wednesday night, but the 22-year-old had only taken two penalties earlier in his professional career: against the Cayman Islands and Curaçao. Their star forward Jonathan David is far more experienced, having converted nine of his 12 career shots, including two last month for Lille.
Unfortunately for Canada, that inexperience was more than apparent when Davies finally took the shot. He sent a weak effort to his left that was easily smothered by Belgian goalkeeper Thibault Courtois.
Davies, a late arrival on the field for Canada while recovering from a hamstring strain he suffered recently at Bayern Munich, had some nice moments but mostly struggled throughout the game. He didn’t go out into space very often, and on the few occasions he did, he had a hard time connecting with his teammates. He didn’t fit the script, but he was one of the few players in Canada who had a rough start.
Michy Batshuayi, now is your time
Miller: Batshuayi has never felt like The Guy, the one teams rely on for goals, the undoubted first-choice striker. After joining Chelsea in 2016, he became a substitute/glass-breaking option in an emergency, or was out on loan somewhere. Despite technically being their player for six years, he only played two full seasons at Stamford Bridge, spending the rest of his time at Borussia Dortmund, Valencia, Crystal Palace and Besiktas.
That may have changed this season, however, domestically: he made a permanent move to Fenerbahce in the summer and has been scoring goals – eight in 13 games (only seven of which were starts) – and for the first time in a long time, there is a sense of permanence to his career.
Belgium might need him to be The Guy at this World Cup: Romelu Lukaku watched this game from the stands and while they hope he’ll be back from the last group game, there’s no guarantee with muscle injuries like high problem you suffer from. Batshuayi occasionally drew ire with his inconsistency against Canada, but he scored what turned out to be the winner, so maybe Roberto Martinez didn’t mind.
Michy Batshuayi, now is your time.
Youthful Canada vs. crunching Belgium
Al Baharna: While flames blanketed Belgium’s kit, their performance on the pitch was anything but scintillating.
Canada took the lead in the opening minutes of the first half, dominating physically. No team has a higher average age than Belgium at this World Cup, and despite their main goal, it was clear Canada was exploiting that. Herdman’s side were pressing aggressively to win the ball back up the pitch and counter-attack from there, lifting crosses and cutting through Belgium’s aging back line with dangerous through balls.
For much of it, Belgium looked lethargic and calm, earning their only chances through the small transitions they were able to complete.
Canada’s vigor and youth gave them the lead in the first half, but they couldn’t make it count. They looked sharp from the outset, able to circulate possession and slip between opponents, and there was even that outrageous Eustaquio nutmeg on De Bruyne.
Belgium never got going, something that will worry Martinez, and he will be relieved that his side escaped with the three points.
(Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)