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TORONTO — On a big stage before a big crowd, Canada's marquee man delivered. And how.
Alphonso Davies scored a remarkable goal to open the floodgates midway through the second half Wednesday as Canada roared to a 4-1 victory over Panama in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying play.
The goal epitomized the 20-year-old Bayern Munich star, showcasing his speed, acceleration and flair. Not many people on the planet could have scored it.
It got Drake's attention. Canada coach John Herdman said the global hip-hop star texted Davies after the game, saying he wanted to get together.
The 51st-ranked Canadian men had No. 68 Panama under the cosh but didn't pull ahead until the 66th minute when a sprinting Davies came out of nowhere down the right flank to pilfer the ball from under the feet of defender Harold Cummings, who thought the ball was about to go out.
Davies got to the ball before it did, acrobatically using his trailing foot to keep the ball in play and push it ahead of him, then danced around defender Fidel Escobar and — using Tajon Buchanan as a decoy — fired a low shot that left goalkeeper Luis Mejia rooted to the spot for a 2-1 lead. It was Davies' 10th goal in his 28th match for Canada.
The Canadians, unbeaten at 2-0-4 in the final round of qualifying in the region, turned on the offence after the goal.
Buchanan made it 3-1 in the 71st, heading home a Richie Laryea cross for his third goal for Canada. Jonathan David then scored in the 78th minute, slotting the ball home on a counter-attack off a feed from Davies with the Panama defence in disarray. It was the 17th goal in 22 internationals for the Lille striker.
Davies left in the 81st minute to a standing ovation. Shirtless, he celebrated waving a Canadian flag to the fans after.
He shared the kudos in a post-game interview. "Everybody put a shift in tonight," he said.
Davies' influence on and off the field continues to grow.
"Phonzie's a big infuencer in this group. He's a humble guy but when he speaks, it reminds us of (Christine) Sinclair. When he speaks, people listen," said Herdman. who coached Sinclair and the Canadian women before taking over the men's program.
BMO Field was at full capacity, with announced attendance of 26,622 after local authorities eased pandemic-related restrictions. The south stand was a sea of red, filled with waving flags.
They got to see a full-blooded game played at breakneck pace. A rampant Canada dictated almost all of the tempo with Davies, starting up front with David, directing the attack. Davies was electric, tormenting defenders and became even more influential when Herdman shifted him to the wing from a more central position.
The Canadians have now taken seven of a possible nine points at home. And they've done the job on the road, picking up points through draws in the U.S., Mexico and Jamaica.
Herdman got what he wanted — a dominant home performance.
"That was as good or as strong a performance as I've experienced or been a part of," he said.
Canada's next two matches are also at home, against Costa Rica on Nov. 12 and Mexico on Nov. 16, both at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium.
Wednesday's game was the third of an international window that saw the Canadians draw 1-1 in Mexico and 0-0 in Jamaica.
While Panama (2-2-2) was hanging on by a thread through much of the match, the visitors opened the scoring.
Canada started brightly but found itself down 1-0 early after a counter-attack down the right side. Canada was caught short at the back with wingback Laryea up field and Kamal Miller struggling to get back in position. Michael Murillo's low cross found Blackburn between the Canadian centre backs and Rolando Blackburn, who plays for a Bolivian club called The Strongest, tapped it in.
Canada regrouped and attacked with verve, tying the game in the 28th minute off a Davies corner — the latest in a string of them. Buchanan soared high but the ball was ruled an own goal, coming off Murillo's upper body.
Panama began to establish a bit of possession in the second half, keeping the ball away from Canada. Then Davies worked his magic and the match turned.
The benches emptied near the stroke of halftime after a melee as Panama delayed taking a corner. The Canadian substitutes were warming up in the vicinity and took umbrage at Panama's tactics, leading to a scrum that eventually dissipated after some shoving and yelling.
There was more bad blood after the final whistle with players having to be separated. Laryea, whose blood is no stranger to boiling, was irate at something.
"This is life or death for us," said Herdman. "We will fight. We will fight right to the bitter end for this country … Our purpose is bigger and stronger than any other team in CONCACAF. We haven't been to a World Cup since 1986. These teams have. So when you're trying to take that away from us, we're getting in there — everyone."
"It's not nice to see and I don't condone what goes on," he added. "But at the same time our country needs us to fight. We cannot back down at any moment now."
Canada outshot Panama 9-3 (4-1 in shots on target) and had eight corners to Panama's one in the first half alone. The final shots count was 16-7 (8-2 in shots on target) for the Canadians.
In other matches Wednesday, the 13th-ranked U.S. (3-1-2) rallied for a 2-1 win over No. 44 Costa Rica (1-2-3) in Columbus, Ohio, and No. 59 Jamaica (1-3-2) won 2-0 at No. 63 Honduras (0-3-3). No. 9 Mexico (4-0-2) won 2-0 at No. 65 El Salvador (1-3-2) in the late match.
The win moved Canada past Panama into third spot with 10 points in the standings. Mexico leads with 14 points, ahead of the U.S. on 11.
Come March, the top three teams in the eight-team CONCACAF round-robin book their tickets to Qatar 2022. The fourth-place team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Canada opened the final round of qualifying in September with a 1-1 home tie with Honduras before tying the U.S. 1-1 in Nashville and blanking El Salvador 3-0 at BMO Field.
Herdman made six changes to his starting 11, which came into the match with a combined 218 caps — with Jonathan Osorio accounting for 46 of those.
Laryea, Buchanan and Steven Vitoria returned after missing the Jamaica game through suspension for yellow-card accumulation. Stephen Eustaquio was also back, after an appearance off the bench Sunday.
Miller and David Wotherspoon also slotted in. Vitoria captained the side.
Canada was without the injured Atiba Hutchinson, forwards Cyle Larin, Lucas Cavallini and Junior Hoilett. Goalkeeper Milan Borjan is recovering from COVID-19.
Panama was coming off a 1-0 win over the U.S. on Sunday in Panama City, just its second victory over the Americans in 24 meetings (2-16-6) and first in World Cup qualifying play (1-6-2).
It has also registered home ties with Costa Rica (0-0) and Mexico (1-1). On the road, it won 3-0 at Jamaica and lost 1-0 at El Salvador.
Canada improved to 4-1-6 all-time against Panama.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press