On Wednesday night Cuba went out and proved that their win over Canada was no fluke, and that they actually are a fairly strong side. Thanks to a 3-0 win over Nicaragua they punched their ticket into the knockout round and are assured of top place in Group B no matter what happens in the final game between Canada and Nicaragua.
The scoreline in that game makes the job for Canada simple in their game on Friday night. All they need to do is get a draw or a win against Nicaragua and they will move on to the quarterfinal round and face a must win against either Costa Rica or the United States who have both sealed their places in the next round out of Group A, and have their own match on Friday to determine who finishes top of their group.
The task seems to be a fairly simple one but many fans figured that getting a win over Cuba would also be a simple task and for some reason it is hard to have faith in Canadian teams getting the needed result even when it is something as simple as a draw. Maybe that feeling comes from the fact that many times in the past they have come up short in similar situations.
With the road to the World Cup now clearly set for Canada they know that a result against Nicaragua sets up that all important game against who ever comes out on top between Costa Rica and the United States. Win that game and you go to the World Cup and no one is likely to remember the sloppy showing against Cuba. A failure to reach the knockout round when all they needed is a single point from two matches really would be inexcusable from Nick Dasovic and his team.
To make that World Cup Canada is going to need a lot better from their core players against Nicaragua. Against Cuba alot of the issues came from the fact that Canada's top rated players turned in some very poor performances. The most glaring ones were in the middle of the backline. Doneil Henry and Daniel Stanese were supposed to anchor this team and provide one of the best defenses in the tournament but instead they looked suspect on far too many Cuba attacks and needed to be bailed out by Maxime Crepeau on a number of occasions just to keep the scoreline close.
The midfield was also guilty of making far too many errors despite being highly regarded prior to the event. There were plenty of flashes of individual skill on the ball and a willingness to run at defenders but there was almost no cohesion and on a number of times there was far too much space between the defenders and the attackers which should have been filled by the midfielders. The two players who really need to be much better for Canada to have success in this event are Samuel Piette and Keven Aleman. They are among the top Canadian prospects for a reason but over the course of the 90 minutes they did not show it.
Piette looked like he was having to cover too much ground against Cuba and was not getting very much help with trying to win the ball in the middle of the park. Partnering him in the middle with someone other than Zakaria Messoudi might be helpful as Canada was in need of another ball winner out there. When he did get the ball though Piette struggled to pick out teammates on a number of occasions which is not what Canada would have been hoping for from a player who has already been capped for the National team.
Aleman was one of the standout players of the first half against Cuba and probably should have opened the scoring when he found himself in behind the defenders but tried to go between the keepers legs rather than working the angles and placing the ball inside the post. He also made a number of slaloming runs that looked exciting but eventually led to nothing as he tried to take on one too many defenders. The issue with his game was doing the simple things right. On a number of runs he failed to see the simple pass to his teammate and instead dribble into trouble and sometimes when he did see the simple pass his ball was errant and resulted in a turnover. If Canada wants to run its attack through Aleman he will simply need to be better.
If that spine of players put in a better performance against Nicaragua it will make everyone around them look better as a result and should give Canada more than enough to win the game. The pieces around them are where there is more room for debate and some will question a couple of the selections that Dasovic made against Cuba. The big questions came with the attackers as Anthony Jackson-Hamel, Michael Petrasso, and Ben Fisk were less than inspiring in their performances despite managing to create a couple of quality chances that ended up coming to nothing.
The team looked noticeably more threatening when they were pushing late in the game and part of that was due to the changes that Dasovic made in the second half. Stefan Vukovic came on and made no mistakes with his only chance of the match as he showed his poachers instincts and scored Canada's only goal of the game on a rebound which he was in the right place to slot home. Caleb Clarke was also impressive in his second half run out and created a couple of decent openings for himself but was just lacking in his finishing. His size and ball control allowed him to beat his man on a number of occasions and might have caused the Cubans more trouble than Jackson-Hamel did had he been given more time on the field.
No matter who starts for Canada in this game they will simply have to work better as a team if they have any hopes of going somewhere in this tournament. Nicaragua really should be an easy team for Canada to beat but with Costa Rica or the United States waiting in the wings just getting a result won't be good enough. The team needs to get the kind of result that helps build confidence and gets them on a roll as a group as no matter who they get in the quarterfinal (should they advance) it is going to be a tough task.
As for the opposition on Friday night, they simply looked out classed against a similar Cuba team to the one that beat Canada on Monday. They had little answer for the pace at which Cuba played the game and were carved open repeatedly. The final score of 3-0 was probably kind to Nicaragua as Cuba could very well have scored a few more times in the game with a bit more luck. Most of the threat from Cuba came from Maykel Reyes who turned in another very solid performance and could have had a few more goals to his name has he shown a bit more skill in finishing.
Reyes cause Nicaragua so much trouble with the same tools that allowed him to get the better of Canada's central defenders on a number of occasions. It was his combination of size that allowed him to beat his man on the dribble and pace that allowed him to run in behind that unlocked Nicaragua for two goals last night and a number more chances.
Canada should look to exploit the same weakness by going with a bigger front line this time around and hoping that Clarke can find similar success in getting behind the defenders and wreaking havoc. They certainly look vulnerable at the back to that sort of attack and there is no doubt that Canada's coaching staff will have been watching.
Like Cuba, Nicaragua had to navigate a tough road just to reach this competition. They had to qualify through the Central American zone which featured six teams and only four spots available in Mexico. Nicaragua qualified for the CONCACAF Championships by finishing second in their qualifying group behind Costa Rica and ahead of Honduras. Their 1-0 win over Honduras on the final day of play was all the points that they needed to advance despite Honduras coming into the game knowing that all they would need was a draw to move on (that sounds scarily familiar).
It was a shorter road to the tournament than the teams in the Caribbean had to take but still means that their squad got the chance to play meaningful games in 2012. They scored just three goals in their two games during that qualifying tournament but they all came from the same player. Carlos Chavarria Rodriguez is the biggest scoring threat in the squad and it was his efforts that even allowed them to reach this stage.
Chavarria, who plays for Real Esteli FC, is the one player who Canadian defenders will have to be extra concerned with. Against Cuba he was a key part in creating the few chances that Nicaragua did have and it Canada gives him the chance to get in on goal he likely won't need a second invitation to finish off chances.
Outside of Chavarria the Nicaragua squad is basically what you would expect them to be. They showed a high work rate but were unable to match the intensity from Cuba. While Cuba proved to be a surprisingly tall team that was quite adept at dealing with set pieces the same cannot be said for the Nicaraguan side who got exposed by Cuba's height for at least one of the goals they allowed.
At this stage there is no excuse for Canada not knowing what they are up against so now it just comes down to a matter of getting the job done. Pick up a draw or a win and the dream of making the U20 World Cup lives on for another day. Anything less and Canadian soccer fans will be left dissecting another tough to take disappointment.