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Preview: CANMNT takes on Belgium in first World Cup match since 1986

The long World Cup participation drought ends Wednesday with Canada’s first match in 36 years.

Photos: BSR Agency/GettyImages and Sean Pollock/Waking the Red

The long wait is almost over! Canada’s opener for Qatar 2022 on Wednesday, its first World Cup match in 36 years, is anticipated by many as though it were Christmas morning.

The hopes of a nation will ride on the shoulders of veterans Atiba Hutchinson, Milan Borjan and Junior Hoilett along with young stars such as Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan. Missing out, due to unfortunate late injuries, are depth pieces Doneil Henry, Scott Kennedy and Maxime Crepeau.

Davies is expected to be back from a recent hamstring strain, and if healthy will be expected to start. How long he goes after missing nearly two weeks on the sideline remains to be seen but given the importance of the first game in the World Cup group stages he could play substantial minutes. Expect Davies to have a more free-ranging role, especially when Canada has possession. While the CanMNT had success in Davies injury absences during qualifying, Canada is not the same team when Davies is missing.

Belgium will undoubtedly be wary of the threat posed by Davies’ speed and dribbling and he will be expected to draw a crowd of Belgian defenders whenever he is near the ball. However, as seen throughout qualifying, when Davies draws multiple defenders to him there is certain to be extra space and less marking for his attacking teammates.

David will be tasked to lead the line and will look to exploit open seams for teammates to find him in the final third. David’s knack for finding space along with quick acceleration and meticulous timing of his runs may give the Belgian back line some serious challenges throughout the match.

Japan v Canada - International Friendly
Junior Hoilett during the recent match with Japan November 17, 2022 in Dubai, UAE
Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images

Hoilett’s man of the match performance in Friday’s final tune-up game has likely assured him as starting role in the team’s opener. Hoilett will likely play as a central midfielder lining up just ahead of Hutchinson and Stephen Eustáquio. Also look for Hoilett to interchange positions with Davies as the course of the game dictates.

There has been no meaningful head to head action between Canada and Belgium to reference as they have not played one another in over 33 years... The two nations’ one and only game was a friendly held at Lansdowne Park, Ottawa on 9 June 1989 that was won by the Red Devils 2-0. Notable names for Belgium that day were Marc Degryse, Marc Emmers, and Jan Ceulemans. Canada was led by Craig Forrest, Dale Mitchell and Alex Bunbury.

Belgium, ranked second in the pre-tournament FIFA rankings, after a previous stint at the top for quite some time would appear to strong for Canada, currently ranked 41st. However, in the more current looking Elo ranking system Belgium is ranked fifth whereas Canada closes the gap somewhat at 29th. The perceived gulf between the two nations is there for a reason, but wheras Belgium is seemingly in a slow decline, Canada rise over the past two years has been meteoric.

How did Belgium fare in recent World Cups? Belgium is coming off their best showing at a World Cup when the finished third overall in 2018. In both 2014 and 2018 Belgium swept their groups with perfect 3-0 records during the height of their golden generation period. However, both their groups in 2014 (Algeria, Russia, South Korea) and 2018 (England, Tunisia, Panama) were relatively easier than their current Group F opposition.

Much has been made of Belgium being an aging cast ripe for the picking. The backbone of the team remains veterans like Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Axel Witsel, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen, all over 30 years old.

However, Manager Roberto Martinez has been introducing quality young players into the mix, such as Youri Tielemans, Zeno DeBast, and Jérémy Doku. It would not be surprising to learn that the 19-year-old right back DeBast was brought in to the Red Devils’ fold by Martinez to deal with Davies speed.

Another player to keep an eye on is young attacking midfielder Charles De Ketelaere. Recently transferred to AC Milan, De Ketelaere could be Belgium’s breakout star of the tournament.

The imposing Thibaut Courtois, among the very best goalkeepers in the world, remains a fixture in the Belgian goal. Courtois’ ability is such that when he is on his game is capable of stealing a match for Belgium.

Belgium’s all-time leading scorers, Romelu Lukaku, has been declared out for the first two games of the round robin. The powerful striker has had injury issues to start the club season and has only managed to play in two games for AC Milan in the past four months.

Can Canada turn some heads and pull off a result?

Jonathan David was more or less asked this question during a recent media availability. David’s answer, “Of course. Any team can beat any team on any given day.” For such optimism to play out there are three games within the game to be contested.

Will Canada’s defence hold?

The best defence in CONCACAF in World Cup qualifying was, surprisingly, Canada’s. They will need to repeat that performance as Belgium’s offence is considerably more talented and dangerous than anyone Canada has faced in CONCACAF. A particular concern is with crossed balls in the box. Aside from Steven Vitoria, aerial prowess is not the forte of the likes of Miller or Johnston. We have seen recent examples of where these players were exposed against Uruguay (Johnston) and Japan (Miller).

The midfield battle

Belgium has possessed one of the most formidable midfields over the last five years, but some components are aging and have not been playing at the lofty heights seen in years past. But Canada will be warned to not sleep on them. Canada has yet to experience a game with this much quality in the middle, although Uruguay was very close.

Manchester City’s slick talisman De Bruyne will especially be a handful for Canada’s midfield. His vision on the field and range of passing ability will need to be blunted. Whoever Herdman selects in the middle cannot afford to switch off for any amount of time with the danger posed by Belgium’s midfield in attack. Canada will need superior performances from captain Atiba Hutchinson and the in-form Stephen Eustáquio in this match.

Much of Canada’s midfield success will ride on the play of Stephen Eustáquio
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

Will Canada’s speed prove decisive?

Will Canada’s dynamism on the flanks and threat in transition be enough to overwhelm an imposing Belgian defence that tends to play a high line but is notably not be blessed with pace? Look for Canada to attack Belgium’s back line on the counter and exploit this every opportunity that is presented.

Canada’s speed game has to become a factor if they want to produce a positive result. It is unlikely Belgium will take Canada’s pace lightly. Leading up to this match veteran Belgian midfielder Axel Witsel spoke about Canada and stated,

Canada’s strength is their speed with Jonathan David, Alphonso Davies and Tajon Buchanan on offense. I recently played in #UCL against the latter. We have to be careful about the space we leave behind. They are physically very strong”

Herdman will likely line up with a 3-4-1-2 with the ball, but when out of possession left sided players Adekugbe can shift to left back and Davies would fall back to left midfield in a 4-4-2 set-up. It is also likely we see Hoilett drop deeper to flood the middle with five midfielders in a 4-5-1 leaving David to hold the line. The ability to transition from one tactical formation to another has been a strength of the CanMNT under Herdman and will likely hold them in good stead in this game and throughout the tournament.

Keys to the game

Given the enormity of the challenge that awaits Canada in the game with Belgium there are multiple facets to the game that Herdman and the CanMNT will need to execute in a sufficiently successful manner in order achieve a result. Here are five keys to the game for Canada.

Not conceding early: Make that, do not concede the first goal. The quick goals scored by Uruguay and Japan in their recent tune-up games put Canada in uncomfortable holes early. Nerves were certainly a factor in the opening minutes of the Uruguay match, Canada’s first match against a marque opponent outside their home federation. They cannot afford to come out of the gates playing like a proverbial deer in the headlights. Or it will soon become a deer in the cross-hairs.

Discipline and defensive shape: Canada is not likely to enjoy superior ball possession, and must remain disciplined without the ball. Defensive assignments must be understood and remaining positionaly sound is a must. Pressing is a big part of Canada’s game, but the players must press as a team. Any lapses into free-lancing in defence will not go unpunished by a dangerous Belgian offence. Canada needs equal measures of patience and tenacity in winning the ball back. Once the ball is recovered, the transition to offence needs to be swift and with purpose.

Set Pieces: Dead ball situations have at times been a problematic riddle that Canada has had difficulty solving throughout the Octagonal matches, and since then as well. This early under-performance in dead ball situations is not limited to the offence. The team has been suspect defending set pieces as well. Belgium is blessed with an assortment of creative players with attacking nous.

For Canada to not give up fouls in dangerous places is stating the obvious and when facing off against the likes of De Bruyne, Batshuayi and Hazard (either one) its bound to happen. Many analyses of set piece efficiency during World Cup group stages have shown that the more successful a team can be, the greater their chances of reaching the round of 16.

Conversely, when ball possession is not expected to be in your favour, Canada must make the most of any set piece opportunities that come their way. And to be fair, set pieces taken by Eustaquio and Hoilett of late, have been much better. Canada will need them to continue in this vein.

Efficacy in the Final Third: Canada did well in putting away their chances in qualifying, but the game moves quicker at the World Cup. Belgium’s defence will not give Canada’s attack the luxury of time on the ball in scoring situations in the manner they may have enjoyed during qualifying. There will be no time or space for dithering in this match.

Fortunately for Canada, David and Larin have generally been clinical with the chances that come their way. Even Lucas Cavallini, expected to be used almost exclusively as a late game energy spark from the bench to close off games, looked lively in the recent matches against Bahrain and Japan.

Composure: Herdman has cultivated tightly knit bond among the players, popularly referred to as ‘the brotherhood’. This fraternal closeness has been a positive force for the team. However, the players, both individually and collectively, need to harness the energy the brotherhood emits, and keep emotions in check.

Fearlessness, a hallmark of the CanMNT over the past two years, cannot be permitted to descend into recklessness. With just two yellow cards needed to bring on a suspension, players will need to exercise greater composure than usual.

The announced referee for the game will be Janny Sikazwe from Zambia. Sikazwe is notorious for incorrectly calling time on a match at the 2021 African Cup of Nations at 85 minutes, and then again before the full 90 minutes were up. He does have prior World Cup experience having officiated at the 2018 tournament, including the group stage match between Belgium and Panama.

In other Group F action Wednesday 2018 finalists Croatia face north African side Morocco.

Predicted Lineups:

Belgium – 3-4-2-1 T. Courtois; J. Vertonghen, T. Alderweireld, Z. Debast; Y. Carrasco, A. Witsel, Y. Tielemans, T. Castagne; E. Hazard, K. De Bruyne; M. Batshuayi

Canada – 3-4-1-2 – M. Borjan; K. Miller, S. Vitoria, A. Johnston; S. Adekugbe, S. Eustaquio, A. Hutchinson, T. Buchanan; J. Hoilett; A. Davies, J. David

Canada vs Belgium Game Details

Where: Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Al Rayyan Qatar

When: 23 November 2022, 10:00 pm local time, 2:00 pm EST, 11:00 am PST

How to Watch: TSN