It was just over a year ago now that Canada's women strode confidently to Germany to take part in the World Cup. Ranked number 6 in the world and with plenty of good results behind them and with a seemingly unbreakable belief in themselves and coach Carolina Morace, there was serious optimism. We know how that ended. An honourable loss to the Germans followed by two unbelievably limp losses to France and Nigeria saw the team return home pointless, Morace leaving amid a sudden denunciation of her methods.
A new era was started under John Herdman, gold at the 2011 Pan-Am games was followed by a successful qualification tournament in Vancouver and we're heading to
London , actually make that the infinitely less exciting Coventry, but still.
Of course that tournament also showed how far Canada still have to go when taking on the top teams, as the US crushed them 4-0 in the final. The tendency to beat the teams they should, but not being able to up their game against the best is a pattern that has repeated itself in the games Canada has played since.There's been plenty of wins, but also defeats to the US again, France, Sweden and Brazil (though they did beat Brazil in another game), which all suggests a very predictable tournament for Big Red.
An opening game against World Cup champions Japan will more than likely end in a loss, the second game against South Africa should be a win (hopefully they can be ruthless as goal difference could well be crucial) and the final group game against Sweden will be the one that really determines the success of the tournament. Get a result there to clinch one of the top 2 spots and there's a good chance Canada could get a favourable quarter final game that could see them get to the semi final. A loss to Sweden will more than likely mean 3rd place in the group, and if that is good enough to qualify (the top 2 of each group and the 2 best 3rd place finishers qualify) it'll be a tough match up and more than likely a quarter final exit, which is how it all went down in Beijing in 2008.
To state the blindingly obvious, the key player for Canada's chances of overachieving and sneaking a medal out of this is Christine Sinclair. She'll have to be at her best when it counts, which sadly isn't a given as, as dominant as she can be against weaker teams, she often seems unable to put the team on her shoulders and really make a difference in the big games.
There's two main reasons for that, the biggest being that all the other teams of course know all about her, and the defensive focus is always on stopping her. That's where the rest of the team has to step up and make the opposition pay for that focus. If the likes of Diana Matheson, Melissa Tancredi or Kaylyn Kyle can take advantage of the extra space they'll get, that will not only help Canada, but also bring a little more room for Sinclair to do her thing.
Another thing that can stop Sinclair is her tendency to drop further back in an effort to gain possession when things are going wrong. It's a double edged sword of course as staying in position up front without getting any service doesn't help, but dropping back to actually get the ball can leave Canada looking toothless up front. Basically, while Sinclair is the woman that everything revolves round, even she can't do it all by herself, and support in the atttack from the rest of the team will be crucial.
When it comes to keeping the goals out, that'll start in midfield with Desiree Scott and Sophie Schmidt. They will have their hands full with Japan's Homare Sawa in the first game and will have a big part to play throughout the tournament, along with Candace Chapman and the rest of the defence. In goal, Karina Leblanc and Erin Mcleod are a solid couple of options that won't let anyone down, but Canada may well need whoever gets the start to stand on their head at some point in the tournament to steal a game.
If they hope to beat their quarter final showing from 2008, and maybe win a medal, Canada will have to upset at least one of the more fancied teams.They'll have to find the mental fortitude that so deserted them at the World Cup, and combine that with some luck, a great performance from Sinclair, and plenty of support from the rest of the squad. Though history suggests it's unlikely, and if forced to guess I'd predict a quarter final exit, it's by no means impossible. This article from Canada.com shows the players are once again full of belief and love for their coach, hopefully Herdman's new methods and attention to detail will make a difference. Get to the knockout stages and anything can happen.