Canada exits World Cup with few silver linings

Alphonso Davies reacts after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Canada and Morocco. (Photo by Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Alphonso Davies reacts after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Canada and Morocco. (Photo by Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Canada will leave Qatar without a win after wrapping up its first World Cup campaign in 36 years with a 2-1 loss to Morocco on Thursday.

As a result of its victory, Morocco advanced to the Round of 16, sitting atop Group F with seven points. Croatia finished second in the group, while No. 2-ranked Belgium will join Canada on the sidelines after finishing third.

Hakim Ziyech opened the scoring for Morocco in the 4th minute after Steven Vitoria and Milan Borjan committed a dual blunder at the back, while Youssef En-Nesyri added an insurance marker in the 23rd minute. Canada got on the board after Sam Adekugbe’s effort was deflected for an own goal by Morocco’s Nayef Aguard in the 40th minute. Canada made a strong push in the second half, highlighted by a crossbar rattling header from Atiba Hutchinson, but the Canadian side couldn't break through with the equalizer.

Canada’s second half showing was inspiring, but too late

Too little, too late. Canada played its best football of the tournament during the second half against Morocco, an encouraging display that was also rendered academic.

Junior Hoilett played his best game of the World Cup and in tandem with Alphonso Davies, created several chances throughout the 50th-60th minutes, before eventually being subbed off in the 75th minute. Hoilett played with real flair and inventiveness and tried to provide Davies with as many good looks as possible against an aggressive yet organized Moroccan team that dared Canada to push forward.

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Canada’s Tajon Buchanan went on a clever individual run to draw a foul in a strong attacking position in the 69th minute. After earning a corner a minute later, Atiba Hutchinson missed out on the equalizing goal by inches, an agonizing result for the captain, especially considering how poorly he played during his 100th cap versus Croatia. Hoilett once again was on the playmaking end, putting the ball right onto Hutchinson’s radar. Alistair Johnston sent the subsequent attempt over the bar, ending the scoring chance.

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In fairness to Hutchinson, he put together a much better showing against Morocco and was more spry in the build-up play throughout the contest after coming on as a substitute for Mark-Anthony Kaye in the 60th minute.

There were definitely signs of life and no one should’ve taken Morocco for granted. In retrospect, it appears obvious they were the deeper team, and they certainly weren’t lacking star power — Hakimi is world-class and Ziyech was a huge part of Chelsea’s Champions League victory two years ago. Although there was nothing to play for but pride, we should’ve collectively tipped our hat to Morocco before the final whistle.

Steven Vitoria and Milan Borjan struggled badly throughout the tournament

We’re not trying to scapegoat anyone necessarily for Canada’s poor showing at the World Cup. This was a team that was expected to reasonably contend in one of the tournament’s toughest groups. Emerging with zero points is the worst-case scenario.

If you want to celebrate Canada merely attending this year’s showcase, you’re simply regurgitating the successes of the qualification run. That time has passed. And we don’t want to pile on, but Canada’s Steven Vitoria and Milan Borjan had dreadful showings, which was once again apparent against Morocco.

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Vitoria made a critical blunder in Canada’s opening match against Belgium, caught flat-footed and staring into space when Toby Alderweireld delivered a crisp long-range ball to Michy Batshuayi. This time around, Vitoria carelessly passed the ball back to Milan Borjan, giving him no room to operate with two Moroccan attackers converging. Borjan shanked the ball right onto the pathway of Hakim Ziyech — the worst possible option – and the Chelsea winger put his team up 1-0.

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It was a nightmare start for Vitoria and Borjan, and this was just the beginning. Morocco’s Achraf Hakimi is one of the best right-backs in world football and he proved he could be dangerous from miles away. Hakimi sliced Vitoria and Kamal Miller open with a perfect long ball from his defensive zone. Youssef En-Nesyri intelligently timed his run but Vitoria once again was too late to track the Moroccan striker and submitted a tepid close out effort after getting beat on the sprint. It was way too passive from one of Canada’s veteran leaders.

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It’s cruel to single out Vitoria and Borjan. We’ll discuss the future of the Canadian men’s side below, but as both men are 35, neither appear to factor into the 2026 side.

Expected goals never materialized as actual goals

If you look at the advanced stats chart, you’ll be prone to pulling your hair out.

With the exception of Canada’s disaster-class second half against Croatia, it constantly created chances from prime scoring locations. The fact that Canada exits Qatar with just two goals — one created by a Canadian player, the other a result of Morocco’s misfortune — is a damning indication of the poor finishing from Canada’s forwards.

Alexandre Gangue-Ruzic of OneSoccer noted that Canada had a superior expected goals difference (0.47-0.43) throughout the first half, despite trailing 2-1 — and could’ve been down 3-1 were it not for a timely offsides call. Canada out-possessed Morocco by a 59-41 percent split, held a 86-79 percent completed passes advantage and yet it couldn’t record a single shot on target.

Canada’s poor finishing was the primary reason for the loss against Belgium with Jonathan David and Buchanan as the main culprits. David, somewhat inexplicably, didn’t get onto the pitch until the 60th minute and Buchanan showed off a few clever individual moments, particularly in the second half. The chances were there, but they were squandered with reckless abandon.

You can’t take the charts home with you. Perhaps some of this is bad luck and if you ran another simulation of the three group stage matches, Canada almost certainly would’ve done better. But the finishing from Davies, David, Larin and Buchanan needed to be consistently better, and despite indications that Canada should’ve been more explosive, they were rendered impotent.

A look ahead to the future

We’re not necessarily in the business of providing silver linings, given that Canada was one of only two teams, joining host Qatar, to finish the tournament without a single point. But if there is a positive to be gleaned from this experience, it’s that this Canadian side ought to be much better in 2026.

Buchanan, Davies, David, Johnston, Miller, Stephen Eustaquio, Ismael Kone, Ike Ugbo, Liam Millar, Liam Fraser Derek Cornelius, James Pantemis and Dayne St. Clair are all under the age of 25 currently, giving Canada an excellent core to build from. You have to figure Toronto FC’s 18-year-old winger Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty factors into the team, along with his club teammate Ayo Akinola, who is only 22. Luca Koleosho is just 18 as well and he ought to get some real experience with Espanyol in La Liga. This won’t be Canada’s last dance.

“I think we showed that we've been fearless across each of the three games and I think in each of the three games, we've had something to celebrate one way or another,” Canada manager John Herdman said after the match.

We disagree with Herdman in that there hasn’t been something to celebrate from every game. But it’s also important to take the long-term view now that Canada’s tournament has officially come to an end. The 2022 team created tons of chances and just couldn’t bury them, while the star-studded core will be in the peak of their primes in 2026, where Canada will be one of three hosts along with their continental neighbours, Mexico and the United States. It’s hard to be proud of a zero-point effort, but it’s also needlessly pessimistic to write it off as an indictment of the program’s ceiling.

Alphonso Davies reacts after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Canada and Morocco. (Photo by Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Alphonso Davies reacts after the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group F match between Canada and Morocco. (Photo by Adam Pretty - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

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