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Preview: Canada visits Costa Rica with chance to clinch spot at Qatar 2022

The CanMNT kicks off their final three-match window with their most consequential game to date.

Atiba Hutchinson scores from the ground with his back against El Salvador - 2 February 2022 - San Salvador, SLV
Canada Soccer / Martin Bazyl

John Herdman is fond of describing the year-long process of competing in the Octagonal as a journey. Now that journey is into the home stretch that begins with Canada facing recent regional powerhouse Costa Rica at the Estadio Nacional in San José, Costa Rica on Thursday evening.

Although Canada has already assured itself of at least a fourth place finish after the January window, the aim is direct qualification to Qatar. While there are many pathways to achieve direct qualification, the simplest route is with a Canadian win on enemy territory. However, a draw in San José coupled with a Panama draw or loss in their game with Honduras will also seal the deal.

Opposition Scouting Report

Costa Rica is coming into this match on a hot streak. Undefeated in four games (since the match in Edmonton) and with three consecutive clean sheets, Los Ticos will be brimming with confidence. This is especially so as they have only lost once at home during the Octagonal so far, that being a defeat to Mexico in September. On the other hand, Costa Rica has struggled offensively having only managed to score two goals over their last three games.

Costa Rica’s roster is weighted heavier toward domestic players, and manager Luis Suarez has begun the process of replenishing the team with younger players. However, the side remains tilted towards many of its veterans that helped them to the World Cup finals in 2014 and 2018. Forward Joel Campbell, currently with Liga MX’s Monterrey, is Costa Rica’s key offensive threat and danger man.

However, Costa Rica’s ace in the hole remains their outstanding goalkeeper Keylor Navas. He has been a wall for Los Ticos of late, and much of the team’s success will be riding on his shoulders as the group in front of him has not been renowned for its goal scoring prowess. The PSG keeper did not play in his last club match and was rumoured to be sick with the flu but he has travelled home to meet up with the team and will most likely start on Thursday.

There are no suspensions for Costa Rica heading into the match with Canada, but they have a litany of players carrying yellow cards, including many of their key players. This is significant as Costa Rica will need all hands on deck in order to have any hope of surpassing Panama in the standings. Those in the roster on a yellow include; Francisco Calvo, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Oviedo, Celso Borges, Jewison Bennette, Joel Campbell, Keysher Fuller and Alonso Martínez.

The Officiating Crew

The match officials hail from Honduras. Referee Héctor Said Martínez Sorto had recently officiated the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup final between Mexico and the United States. He is considered one of CONCACAF’s rising stars of officiating. A quick look at recent matches officiated by Martinez suggests he is not as card happy as other officials in the region.

Canada’s Match Outlook

There were few surprises in John Herdman’s roster selection this window. It was anticipated for some time that Alphonso Davies’ recovery from his bout with myocarditis would likely prevent him from joining up with the squad. Davies is irreplaceable and will be missed in such an important game but the team got by quite well in his absence in the January window. So once again, it will be up to the rest of the team to carry on without his services with major contributions expected from the likes of Cyle Larin and Jonathan David.

Canada will also be without the services of Doneil Henry and Samuel Adekugbe for the Costa Rica match, with both defenders missing out due to suspensions from yellow card accumulations. Like their opponent, Les Rouges head into this match with several players carrying yellow cards, including: Lucas Cavallini, Tajon Buchanan, Stephen Eustáquio, Liam Fraser, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Richie Laryea.

Veteran centre-back Steven Vitoria is back from suspension but remains troubled by muscular issues, therefore making him a doubt for the Costa Rica match. Fellow centre-back Scott Kennedy came out of his last club match with Jahn Regensburg with a second half injury but indications are that he will be ready to go on Thursday night.

We’ll be bringing an intensity, a passion to that match like we’ve done in all our matches, and then the tactical discipline to get that job done on the pitch.” - John Herdman.

Costa Rica, like Panama who Canada will face in the final match of this window and the Octagonal as a whole, will throw everything they have at Herdman’s men. With Panama and Costa Rica expected to go toe-to-toe for fourth place, Canada can expect a fiercely contested match from a highly motivated opponent.

Defensively minded and low-scoring, Costa Rica are not expected to sit back as much in the match at San Pedro Sula. With fourth place on the line, Los Ticos need wins, and to achieve this they will have to try scoring more than their average of 0.73 goals per game after their first 11 matches in the Octagonal. Nevertheless, a tight low-scoring game is still anticipated.

Keys to the Game

Game management is all-important for Canada to enjoy success. As noted, Costa Rica are entering this match on a roll. Playing before their home crowd they will be feeling that much more confident. This match has all the makings of an epic clash.

I got no concern that the group won’t see this as the most important game of their Canadian national team careers.” - John Herdman

For Canada, it is vital to not concede early, and to get that significant opening goal. This will change the dynamic of the game and force Costa Rica to open up and press forward even harder. A judicious use of a low block with timely yet relentless pressing up front, may make Costa Rica uncomfortable with the ball and allow Canada to regain possession and hit back hard on the counter.

Canada must play a full 90 minutes, without any let up. Costa Rica is a team deep with experience and can hurt Canada if they get sloppy. Getting through the first 15 minutes without conceding is pivotal. Allow Costa Rica to score first and Canada will invite a whole lot of trouble as the hosts will then literally park the bus. Closing out the match in the last 15 minutes is equally important. Poise under pressure coupled with timely and astute substitutions from John Herdman are essential to finishing the game.

Cyle Larin opens the scoring against the United States at Tim Horton Field Hamilton Ontario 30 January 2022.
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

Possession is important, but perhaps, patience, is the most vital quality in these key periods of the game. After all, if the Octagonal has shown us anything, it is that Canada’s strength has been creating and converting chances without dominating possession. Costa Rica has not shown itself to be an offensive dynamo so keeping things tight without the ball will likely frustrate the hosts.

And finally, it has to be mentioned that dead ball situations have to improve for Les Rouges. Set pieces and corners are still a weak spot in Canada’s game, both attacking and defending. While Canada has shown improvement on offensive set pieces, it is quite telling that Milan Borjan is Canada’s best set piece defender.

The last word on this will be left to John Herdman, who, when asked what he’d tell his players before the match stated,

Be calm, let’s stay calm. We’ve got to bring that fight, that passion, We’ve got to remain adaptable like we’ve been. Be calm, It’s a big moment but it’s one that we can handle if we stay together and remain calm.”

Possible line-up for Canada

Predicting John Herdman’s formation or line-up is a crap shoot at the best of times. Against stronger opponents or when playing in more challenging environments Canada should consider using a minimum three midfielders, and reserve two midfield strategies for weaker opponents. Accordingly, Herdman may roll out a 3-4-1-2 as follows:

Milan Borjan; Alistair Johnston, Derek Cornelius, Scott Kennedy; Richie Laryea, Stephen Eustáquio, Atiba Hutchinson, Cristián Gutiérrez; Jonathan Osorio; Jonathan David, Cyle Larin

*If anyone else cares to take a stab at guessing Herdman’s lineup then please share below. It might be fun.

Game Time: 10 pm ET, 24 March 2022

Television: Sportsnet Ontario, Sportsnet East, Sportsnet One and Sportsnet 360

Streaming: OneSoccer, Fubo TV