World Cup 2022: Canada puts up strong fight but falls to Belgium

Canada's World Cup run began with a hard-fought loss to Belgium. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)
Canada's World Cup run began with a hard-fought loss to Belgium. (Photo by ANP via Getty Images)

After a 36-year hiatus from the FIFA World Cup, Canada lost 1-0 to Belgium during its opening game.

Belgium, the No. 2 ranked side in the world, were backed against the wall for the majority of the first half. Michy Batshuayi scored the game's opening goal in the 44th minute, taking a perfectly-placed long-range pass from Toby Alderweireld and depositing it past Canada's Milan Borjan.

Canada earned a penalty after Belgium's Yannick Carrasco was found to have handled the ball in the box upon going to VAR. However, Belgium's Thibault Courtois robbed Alphonso Davies on the ensuing penalty in the 10th minute, keeping the game scoreless.

Here are three takeaways from Canada’s opening game loss.

Canada’s abysmal finishing is the primary reason for the loss

It was an agonizing loss and how you feel about it may depend on your perception of the Canadian side going into the contest. If you felt that it was enough to merely show it belonged, Canada did that, proving it was the better side for large stretches of the contest. But if the belief was that this version of Canada was Belgium’s peer, history be damned, then you can be a lot more critical of the loss itself. And by taking the second approach, fuelled by its incredible showing during the CONCACAF qualification bracket, it’s easy to point out that Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan’s wasteful finishing were the primary reason why Canada is sitting at the bottom of Group F after one game.

From the outset, Canada took on an aggressive approach, using its modified 4-4-2 format to press Belgium with its superior pace and crossing from the wings. Buchanan pressed early and his aggressiveness almost paid dividends for Canada, as Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco blocked his scoring chance with his arm in the eighth minute, leading to a penalty, which we’ll discuss in further detail. It started out well enough for Canada, with David playing like a mad man in particular, trying anything and everything to get a quality chance towards the net. Throughout the game, crashing runs from Richie Laryea and Alistair Johnston helped Canada generate a ton of scoring chances. But the David-Buchanan pairing constantly wasted the final ball, and in the end, Canada’s 22-9 shot advantage rings merely academic.

Laryea whipped in a perfect ball just before the end of the first half where Buchanan merely needed to tap it home. It was delivered on a plate, the least he could do is force Courtois — who played like the world’s best goalkeeper when tested — into making a quality save. Buchanan skied it instead and Belgium took a 1-0 lead into the break, where it was badly outmatched everywhere but the scoreboard.

And the finishing woes continued into the second half. Just after the resumption of play, Stephen Eustáquio nutmegged Kevin De Bruyne, Belgium’s world-class midfielder who was largely kept in check, then delivered a perfect ball for David. And once again, David sent an uninspiring effort wide.

The chances began to dry up toward the end of the match, despite constant pacy runs from the fullbacks, along with solid work in the midfield by Davies, Eustáquio and Junior Hoilett. But you can’t help but wonder what could’ve been. Cyle Larin got a quality ball in from Sam Adekugbe — both players performed well off the bench — but Larin skimmed the ball harmlessly into the stands.

Canada head coach John Herdman said post-game his team should hold their heads high, and we’re not necessarily opposed to that. But if Canada entered the tournament discontent with the idea of merely just being there, then it can be upset with the dismal finishing from its attacking duo.

The debate about Alphonso Davies’ penalty is revisionist and overblown

Davies or David? The debate will apparently reign on for several days after the Bayern Munich star was robbed by Courtois in the 10th minute. The discourse about Davies’ penalty feels overblown and revisionist, even if David is usually designated to step up from the spot.

If Davies scored, we’re all writing different essays about how the 22-year-old is leading the next wave of Canadian stars into an unprecedented future for the program. Davies is already one of the world’s best players and if he scores, legions of columns are being penned across the country about his role in propelling Canada into newfound powerhouse status. To pretend otherwise feels somewhat disingenuous.

Maybe Davies shouldn’t have taken it, but let’s be honest: when he stepped up to take the shot for Canada, no one was screaming at their televisions asking what Herdman was thinking. It’s a decision that only looks poor in retrospect, and it can be eased by remembering that it wasn’t some scrub in net — Courtois can steal games by himself, and though that’s not quite what happened here, there isn’t much shame in being stopped by the Yashin Trophy winner.

Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston and Richie Laryea were outstanding for Canada

OK, we’ve done enough criticism for one game. Kamal Miller, Alistair Johnston and Richie Laryea were all outstanding for Canada and deserve further recognition for their impressive play against Belgium.

We’ve already discussed Johnston and Laryea’s contributions to the attack, so we’ll start with Miller in this section. Miller was ready to rock from the opening minute and was largely responsible for suppressing Belgium’s forwards in the final third. During the 22nd minute, Miller erased a massive scoring chance from Batshuayi, getting in the middle of a modified 2-on-1 scenario and then correctly closed onto the Belgian striker, clearing his shot attempt to safety. Miller was officially named Canada’s man of the match and though it could’ve gone to Laryea as well, we’re not arguing against the choice. He won’t be playing in MLS for long.

Johnston was a constant through line between Canada’s defense into attack, going on long runs, while constantly finding ways to whip dangerous crosses into the box. Although Belgium’s Eden Hazard got the best of him a few times, Johnston always tracked back voraciously and was constantly moving throughout the contest. His breakneck balls into the box are bound to give Croatia and Morocco headaches.

Laryea was a menace on both ends and he prevented Belgium from extending its lead in the 66th minute. De Bruyne raced past Miller, who went to the ground in the ostensible hope of the referee stopping play for injury, creating a dangerous odd-man rush. De Bruyne sent the ball to a trailing Batshuayi in the box, surely eying a brace. At the last moment, Laryea expertly timed his sliding tackle and sprayed the ball to safety.

Not a bad World Cup debut from Canada’s defensive trio.

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