No comment required. Photo courtesy Canada Soccer
It wasn't pretty, it wasn't convincing, they made it harder then it needed to be, and it all gives me little confidence that things will work out against the better teams in the group. Absolutely none of that matters. Canada did what they needed to do, which was very simply, do what you need to do to get 3 points. Olivier Occean's 54th minute goal was all they needed as they rode their luck, some determined defending and poor play from Cuba to a 1-0 win, even after playing the last 30 minutes with ten men.
Given the conditions, it would be ridiculous to ask for anything more than the basics, and equally ridiculous to read anything into it as far as what it might mean for future games. The heat meant there was no way either side could play any kind of high intensity game, the smart game plan was always going to be about maintaining possession, pass the ball around and make your opponent do the running. The condition of the pitch, long grass and ridiculously bumpy with the ball bobbling everywhere, meant that that gameplan would never work. Instead it became a war of attrition that never developed any kind of flow, the kind of game where it was always going be one goal to decide it, a slow grind rather than any kind of thrilling back and forth or highly skilled chess match.
The first half played out that way, and after a slow start Canada got the better of the chances, with Dwayne de Rosario showing the finishing that has seen him score only from penalties over 4 years now for Canada, rather than the golden boot MLS MVP form he's shown during that same 4 years. After making one chance harder than it should have been by taking an extra touch that made his shooting angle worse, his best chance came in injury time, when the ball broke to him about 10 yards out, right in front of goal, but his awkward looking shot bounced back off the bar, and the half ended at 0-0.
Canada had finished the first half strongly but the start of the seocnd half was a different story as Cuba were all over them, creating a few half chances, getting some shots on goal, and hitting the outside of the post. It was all very worrying given how hard it would be to come from behind in these conditions, but happily against the run of play Canada got a goal. The ball went to the right wing corner flag, and was played back to David Edgar. He used the outside of his boot to send in a beautiful inswinging cross (he's a centre back on a regular basis!) that an unmarked Olivier Occean met perfectly and absolutely buried in the top corner, giving the goalie no chance.
For ten minutes or so after that, Canada looked a lot better, more in control, but of course it was never going to be that easy, and in the 63rd minute, we got the patented 'guaranteed one fuck up per game' from Lars Hirschfeld. He's generally a good goalie, often makes some very spectacular saves, but just as often does something disastrous. Often it can be a minor thing that looks terrible but doesn't hurt the team, sometimes it's letting in a bad goal as he did in the 2011 Gold Cup against the US. Today, well a high ball was sent in, he was waiting at the edge of the box, and a forward was running at the ball trying to meet it. Hirschfeld decided he needed to come out and head the ball away, but another crazy bounce meant it was all of a sudden going over his head, so he had to handle it. By now he was adjudged to be outside the box and so it was a deliberate handball, and presumably judged to be denying a goalscoring chance and thus it was a straight red card.
Milan Borjan came in to face the free kick right at the edge of the box, but it was sent over the bar. From there, Canada sat further and further back, bunkering and giving up possession rather than trying to move forward in search of further goals, or even just control of the game. In the conditions, it probably wasn't a bad game plan, and after Simeon Jackson replaced Olivier Occean to provide some fresh legs up front, they did become much better at holding onto the ball further up field. By the time the 4 minutes (surprisingly fair, maybe even more than fair, there was almost 4 minutes around the Hirschfeld red card alone) of injury time was upon us, Canada was adeptly holding the ball in the Cuban half of the field and killing off time by the corner flags.
All in all, despite some dodgy moments, it was a good professional performance to pull out a result in tough circumstances. A second clean sheet in the space of a week is very encouraging, and the defence can once again congratulate itself on a job very well done. It looked ugly going forward, almost more like a hockey game at times with emphasis on knocking the ball down the wings, battling for possession and trying to win corners that might lead to something, but the conditions dictated that, this was never going to be any kind of exhibition. Occean, Ricketts and de Rosario all deserve credit for their efforts out there, and though de Rosario still can't find his scoring touch for Canada, Occean took his one chance magnificently. Grinding it out and taking one of the few chances that came along, that's what this game was going to be about, and Canada did it very very well.
Does a game like that tell us anything about how Canada will perform in much more agreeable circumstances, but against a better team on Tuesday? Not at all, last week's game against the US is probably a much better signpost for the Honduras game.
We do know Hirschfeld will be suspended, but Milan Borjan is a capable substitute so that shouldn't really be a big drop off. More important will be the return of Atiba Hutchinson. He came on as a second half substitute, which presumably means he'd be ready to start against Honduras, and so should replace Nik Ledgerwood in the starting lineup. Another concern is the fitness of Olivier Occean who came out of this game struggling with what was hopefully nothing more than dehydration and cramp. His work to hold the ball up, and clinical finishing of the chance he got are both very good signs. I certainly wouldn't be hailing him as the confirmed solution to the centre forward position, but he certainly made a good case for it. If he's fit and can play a similar game, and Hutchinson can improve the midfield, well Canada would be in very good shape to take on the Hondurans.
This game was an ugly one, but that doesn't matter at all. The fact that Canada had the spirit to win an ugly challenging game, with only 10 men for a good chunk of time is very encouraging, and not something we could have counted on in the past. More important than that is the 3 points, from that game, in those conditions, that's the only thing that means anything.