Canada's defensive structure in for major test vs. Sweden in Olympic final

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KASHIMA, JAPAN - AUGUST 02: Christine Sinclair #12 of Team Canada jumps on team mate Jordyn Huitema #19 of Team Canada following their side's victory in the Women's Semi-Final match between USA and Canada on day ten of the Tokyo Olympic Games at Kashima Stadium on August 02, 2021 in Kashima, Ibaraki, Japan. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)
Can Canada's heart and soul, Christine Sinclair, finally get her Olympic gold? (Getty)

For the first time in history, the Canadian Women's National Team will take the pitch with Olympic gold on the line. 

A rousing victory over the rival United States set Canada up for this incredible moment, and now only powerhouse Sweden stands in its way from achieving a victory for which there is no comparison. 

The Canadians have kept clean sheets in both their knockout phase contests so far after suffering momentary setbacks in all three games in the preliminary round. They face the stiffest test of their defensive line to date in Sweden, which has been as impressive as any from an attacking standpoint at Tokyo 2020.

Is this the perfect final act for Canadian sporting legend and football icon Christine Sinclair? Or will the Canadians simply achieve their baseline objective at the Games, which was to change the colour of the medal on the heels of back-to-back Olympic bronzes at London and Rio?

Before that question is answered, here's what you need to know:

Heat warning

It's going to be hot — so hot that the two teams were successful with a formal ask of the International Olympic Committee to push the gold medal final off an 11 a.m. local start time in Tokyo. 

Made official the night before and perhaps to the surprise of many, the match has been rescheduled to Friday evening in Japan, or early in the morning in Canada.

There was legitimate concern from both governing bodies over the safety and well-being of athletes who could be potentially competing for upwards of 90 minutes in sweltering 40-degree weather, and therefore the decision is probably sound. The heat has been a major story throughout the Games, and has been particularly challenging for events contested in open-air stadiums, most notably track. 

It seemed unlikely that the game would be moved, but now that it has it could be seen as a considerable benefit to Canada. Head coach Bev Priestman has leaned on a very experienced squad to arrive at this point, and she's had to balance rest and load management throughout. 

An extra 10 hours of rest could be a game-changer for a game-changer herself in Sinclair, who is now 38 and competing in her fourth Olympic Games. The Canadian was limping at the end of the match versus the United States, and presumably could have given up the match-deciding penalty to Jessie Fleming for reasons associated with fitness.

The strongest test

Netherlands' blowout victories over Zambia and China made it so that no other team could compete in terms of tournament goal scoring, but the Swedes arrive at the final as the tournament's best offensive squad, and certainly the most difficult test of Canada's defensive structure.

Sweden scored three goals in each of its first four games — which included a 3-0 triumph over the U.S. — before a 1-0 victory over Australia in the semifinal. The Swedes have seven different goal scorers in the tournament — including striker Stina Blackstenius, who has converted four times. By comparison, Canada has four different scorers through its five games, and only one — Janine Beckie — has scored twice.

Canada's back line has held up tremendously well, but it might not be considered the strength of the team. It does feature arguably its best two players, Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, however Lawrence is playing out of her normal midfield position at right back. Priestman has also replaced Shelina Zadorsky at centreback with Vanessa Gilles, who entered the tournament with less than 10 international caps on their resume. 

Assuming Priestman sticks with what got them there, Lawrence, Buchanan, Gilles and Allysha Chapman — and standout keeper Stephanie Labbe — will have their hands full with the Sweden attack, and a group of returnees looking to make amends for the loss suffered in the gold medal final five years ago versus Germany. 

Making history

Regardless of the result, Canadian midfielder Quinn will make history for Canada and global athletics when they become the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to win an Olympic medal.

Quinn, 25, was on the Canadian team that won bronze five years ago in Rio, but only came out as transgender last fall on social media, requesting to have their pronouns changed to they/them.

Quinn's story is another incredibly positive one from Canadian athletes at Tokyo. They told the media following the win over the Unites States that messages of inspiration and support have been pouring in.

"Athletics is the most exciting part of my life and it brings me the most joy," Quinn said, via CBC Sports. "If I can allow kids to play the sports they love, that's my legacy and that's what I'm here for."

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