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‘Feet on the ground, one step closer’

Canada reaches midway point of the Octagonal undefeated.

Steven Vitoria and Alphonso Davies celebrate Jonathan David’s game winner
Martin Bazyl/Canada Soccer

Canada opened the November series of games in Edmonton with a gripping 1-0 victory. While fans and players alike would have hoped for more goals it must be said that Costa Rica played a stout defensive game, as was expected, with tactics designed to disrupt any rhythm the hosts tried to find. But a win is a win. Post-game Jonathan David acknowledged that goals were in short supply but that “the important part is that we defended well as a unit and didn’t concede anything, so if we win 1-0, its okay.”

It is fitting that Lille OSC’s No. 9 be the one pointing out this significant element to the CanMNT’s success – its defence. In the seven games played to date Canada has given up only four goals and never more than one in a game. Much maligned heading into the 2021 international season beginning in March, Canada’s defence has been proving its detractors wrong with consistent and solid performances all year long.

Against Costa Rica, Canada’s use of a four-man back line instead of a three-man back line in a game where they were expected to dominate possession and face an opponent utilizing a low to mid block was surprising. Setting up in a 4-4-2 formation, the absence of a third midfielder contributed to Canada’s somewhat disjointed effort in the first half. Almost from the outset of the match this game was crying out for an offensive minded attacking midfielder such as Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio, Atiba Hutchinson or perhaps David Wotherspoon.

The second half began with a lot more energy and purpose. During an eight-minute span inside the first 20 minutes of the half Canada could have easily gone up three goals. Canada was rewarded for their efforts with David’s goal in the 57th minute. Finding himself in the right spot to collect a spill by Costa Rica keeper Leonel Moreira and coolly slot it past the scrambling defenders into the net. Book-ending his strike was Tajon Buchanan’s audacious bicycle kick off the underside of the crossbar in the 54th minute and Vitoria’s header that was stopped on the line by the Costa Rica keeper in the 61st minute. Regular Costa Rica keeper Keylor Navas missed the game due to injury.

Alphonso Davies had, by his standards, what could generously be called a tough night. It may have been the excitement of playing before a packed stadium in his hometown that got the better of his decision making. Too often, Davies tried to do too much on his own. Seemingly double-teamed at the best of moments he was instantly triple teamed when the ball was at his feet. But instead of recognizing his predicament and passing off to open team mates he tended to hang on to the ball too long, attempting to dribble through the gauntlet surrounding him and then needlessly losing possession. His attempted shots were no where near the target.

It is understandable that Davies wanted to put on a show for his home town, but sometimes he has to play the game in front of him and that might mean allowing others to carry the water when the opposition is stifling him. Davies is no longer a CONCACAF secret and he is expected to draw a high degree of attention from the opposition. To be fair, a sub-par Davies is still an asset to the team given the amount of attention he draws. Expect a more polished Davies on Tuesday.

Liam Millar’s inclusion in the starting eleven was a minor surprise. Not that you could say he didn’t deserve a look with the form he has been in of late with FC Basel. The surprise of his inclusion goes hand in hand with Herdman’s choice of formation. Pencilled in as an outside left midfielder he often found himself in more advanced positions during his 65 minute shift. He had a near miss at the far post on a Davies cross that was unfortunately a foot or two behind him. Its a matter of time before he opens his account for Canada.

Canada’s ‘Raumdeuter’

And then there was Jonathan David just doing Jonathan David things paying off for Canada. Increasingly David’s nous in the penalty area resembles that of Germany’s ‘raumdeuter’ Thomas Muller. Not the fastest, not the tallest, not the strongest, but always popping up in free space with a knack for putting the ball in the net. He often serves as a link between the midfielders, wingers and accompanying forward (should he be so lucky to have one). Compared to the flash of teammates like Davies and Buchanan, or the blunt instruments that Cavallini and Larin are, David relies more on his instincts and knack for finding the right place to be on the pitch to great effect. For those disparaging his play from the last window, this goal marks the third consecutive window David has found the back of the net, and is his third goal in seven games. Just wait until he gets going.

Perhaps Canada’s most outstanding player on the night was the usually unheralded Samuel Adekugbe, who played with the flair and confidence of a veteran immune to the pressure of playing in such an important game for his nation. Solid on both halves of the ball Adekugbe is proving to be a reliable option for John Herdman in these qualifiers. Signing on to Hatayspor in the summer, Adekugbe has been a significant addition to the newly promoted team’s climb to 2nd place in the Turkish Super Lig.

Octagonal Table Splitting in Two

There is a noticeable dichotomy developing in the table between the top four teams and the bottom four at the half way point of this final qualifying stage. The separation between the two groups may prove difficult to overcome for the bottom half teams unless fortunes change dramatically.

Panama remains somewhat of a surprise in 4th spot with 11 points, but their heroic come-from-behind victory over Honduras is bound to make the most skeptical CONCACAF watchers into believers. With a five-point gap between them and the 5th place teams Jamaica, Costa Rica and El Salvador, Panama is in the drivers seat for the 4th place inter-continental playoff spot. The three teams ahead of Panama in the standings cannot let their guards down with Panama lurking just behind them.

Jamaica, with five home games out of the seven games remaining has the most realistic chance of turning their destiny in the right direction. Although the Reggae Boyz will have come away disappointed in their draw with El Salvador Friday night their squad continues to develop and gel with the influx of UK origin players such as West Ham United’s Michail Antonio and Rangers’ Kemar Roofe. They are the dark horse among the bottom half teams. Canada faces Jamaica in their final home game in the last window in March.

Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica appear destined to be also-rans for the remainder of the qualifying process. Pride and the role of spoiler appears to be all they have left to play for. For these reasons they remain formidable and dangerous propositions for any of the teams ahead of them in the table.

The USA has once more gotten the better of their bitter rivals to the south with their 2-0 victory over El Tri. Now tied on points with Mexico (ahead by goal difference) the USA can do themselves a solid by following up their performance with a positive result in Jamaica. However, predicting what lineup Greg Berhalter will select for the Jamaica game is a fools game. Will the USA that played Mexico show up or will it be the USA that played Panama last month? We do know midfielder Weston McKennie and centre-back Miles Robinson will miss out with yellow card accumulation and a red card respectively.

This brings us to Tuesday’s opponent, Mexico. A full strength Mexican squad is expected as none of their key attackers picked up a second yellow card in the USA match. The team is sure to be seething after losing their third consecutive game to the USA in 2021. Mexico played a cautious, almost nervous, game with Canada at the Estadio Azteca last month. Many fans of El Tri, and some players too, were critical of Tata Martino’s tactics in that game. Should Martino elect to play their usual attack minded possession game this could play into Canada’s hands as Herdman will be sure to respond with swift transition attacks as soon as they regain possession. Canada’s speed and skill on the counter has given Mexico fits in their two previous games this year.

Expect Canada to send out another 4-4-2 formation against Mexico with situational flexibility built-in to its design. Guessing who lines up can provide excellent debate among fans of the team. But Herdman is predictably unpredictable when pencilling in his starting line-ups. Some personnel turnover is likely for Tuesday’s game as usual starters Alistair Johnston and Jonathan Osorio were rested for the start against Costa Rica and are likely to return. Canada has no suspensions coming into the game although there are now six players with cautions as Richie Laryea and Steven Vitoria join Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Adekugbe, Stefan Eustaquio, and Samuel Piette with this distinction on this month’s roster.

“Feet on the ground, one step closer” is how John Herdman described his thoughts after Canada’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica. Les Rouges have reached the half-way point in this final round of World Cup qualifying as the only undefeated team left in the Octagonal. As Onesoccer’s Kristian Jack has pointed out on a number of occasions over the past month, in past editions of this tournament, the six team ‘Hex’, teams undefeated after six games have all gone on to qualify for the World Cup. With three wins and four ties to date, and a point off the pace of Mexico and the USA, Canada is looking good for one of the three direct spots for Qatar 2022.