UMM ŞALĀL ‘ALĪ, Qatar — Canada coach John Herdman had a bleak medical update Saturday with goalkeeper Milan Borjan and midfielder Stephen Eustaquio joining star Alphonso Davies as question marks for the World Cup opener against No. 2 Belgium.
Davies arrived in Qatar on Friday evening after receiving treatment back at Bayern Munich for a hamstring strain suffered Nov. 6 in a Bundesliga game at Hertha Berlin. While Bayern said Davies' participation in Qatar was "not at risk," he has not played since.
"My mission is to make sure he plays at this World Cup, it's a childhood dream for him," said Herdman. "And not to put him in a position where he's unsafe."
"But I have to say Belgium's another level, we haven't faced a team of that level … since we played against Brazil (a 3-2 loss in 2008). So you need players like Alphonso, whether that's starting, (coming) off the bench," he added. "So we're doing everything we can."
Herdman said Eustaquio, perhaps Canada's most influential midfielder, is "day by day" dealing with soreness from a muscle issue suffered in training earlier this week.
"It's another calculation. It's an algorithm we're trying to process now of is he hitting his markers?" said Herdman. "It really is mathematics — of what he can tolerate now through these next three training days to show that he's ready to start.
"If there's not a starting position, I'm sure he'll be coming off the bench. But there's no guarantees Stephen Eustaquio will start against Belgium at this point."
Borjan, meanwhile, felt "something in his abdomen" during Thursday's 2-1 win over No. 24 Japan in Dubai, said Herdman,
"Just precautionary," said Herdman.
"(We're) getting ready in case. Next man up," he added with what seemed a nervous laugh. "We went through the (World Cup) qualifying campaign and it was like this. We just never seemed to be able to feel like we were able to get what people on paper would say is your top Canadian team. It's just par for the course at the minute. We'll see."
Eustaquio is Canada's creative force in midfield and has been in a rich vein of form recently with FC Porto in Portugal.
Borjan is Canada's No. 1 'keeper and a team leader with 68 caps for 41st-ranked Canada. In the absence of the injured Maxime Crepeau, his backups are talented but short on international experience in Dayne St. Clair (two caps) and the uncapped James Pantemis.
Canada Soccer did not make any of the players in question available Saturday.
Herdman must weigh the risk-reward factor with the trio. Is it worth risking someone against Belgium, Canada's highest-ranked foe in Group F, on Wednesday when a further setback could rule them out of subsequent games Nov. 27 against No. 12 Croatia and No. 22 Morocco on Dec. 1?
Herdman said while Davies was able to take part in some of the contact work in training, "he's still building towards hitting his top speed."
"He hasn't hit that top speed yet and when you have hamstring injuries that's always the key moment. That's when the hamstring is pushed to its limits."
Herdman noted that his team showed it could win without Davies in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying (Canada topped the eight-country round-robin at 8-2-4). The Bayern Munich star missed seven of those games through illness with Canada going 5-2-0 in his absence, with one of the losses coming when Canada had already secured qualification.
"So it's not something I'm losing sleep over," Herdman said. "I just trust that there's a group of guys that will come together in ways they have to do what's required."
But later in the news conference, he acknowledged with a chuckle: "Yeah, I do still wake up with cold sweats now and again wondering."
All eyes were on Davies as the 22-year-old from Edmonton walked out at the Canadian training facility, located at a sports club about a 25-minute drive north of Doha. Davies coolly showed off some ball skills in the intense heat as he awaited the official start of training, which came after the media were ushered away.
His teammates playfully welcomed him back as the warm-up portion of practice wrapped up, making him run a gauntlet of friendly if firm taps/slaps. Herdman played his part, removing a ball from Davies' hand to help launch him down the human tunnel.
It was 29 degrees Celsius, feeling like 32 degrees for the midmorning session. A slight breeze was welcome.
The players came out to some several lush pitches, a gardening miracle in the desert. Some climbed onto exercise bikes under a canopy. Others sought cover in a mini-field house beside the pitch before coming back out to kick a ball around.
The music accompanying the warm-up — there was a Jamaican dancehall theme with a playlist that included "Bounty Killer" by War Lord and "Goodas Gal" by Cham — was silenced as the midday prayer time delivered a more haunting soundtrack.
The players halted ball play and moved to an adjacent field, taking a pause out of respect.
When the warm-up resumed, defender Doneil Henry ran separately with a trainer. Henry, who has won 44 caps for Canada, was injured prior to the 2-2 tie with No. 85 Bahrain on Nov. 11 and did not make the World Cup roster. He is with the team in a non-playing role.
Saturday marked the Canadians' fourth training session in Doha and the first since the win over Japan.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press