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Preview: Canada faces Uruguay in important pre-World Cup match

Canada faces its stiffest test yet on the journey to Qatar.

Curacao v Canada - CONCACAF Nations League Group C
Alphonso Davies advances the ball vs Curacao in Nations League action 9 June 2022 at BC Place Vancouver.
Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

It’s finally happening. It’s just around the proverbial corner. The match Canadian footy fans have been long waiting for. Where Friday’s affair with Qatar was entertaining, it is viewed by many as the warm-up to this window’s main event – Tuesday’s tilt with South American and world heavyweight Uruguay.

There has been no recent competitive history between the two countries. Canada’s only previous senior match with Uruguay was on February 2nd, 1986, a 3-1 defeat for Canada at the Miami Cup. George Pakos was Canada’s goal scorer that day, with his fifth and final tally in his Canada career.

Uruguay’s Darwin Núñez and Luis Suárez
AFP by Getty Images

Uruguay is ranked 13th by FIFA and 11th in the more current Elo rankings whereas Canada is well back at 43rd in FIFA rankings and tied at 29th with South Korea in the Elo system. The “qualitative advantages” possessed by Uruguay are not lost on John Herdman, who has stated,

“I have to say the game against Uruguay, that was a massive coup for Canada to pull that one off in Europe,...That’s going to be a real test and it’s not necessarily a tactical test. This will be the first time you play a team of $400-million value. When you think you play the U.S., and they’re at that 250-mark, you double that now when you are playing Uruguay.”

Herdman further remarked

”It’s just another level. We can’t wait. It’s pretty exciting.”

Canada’s roster is missing some key personnel, such as midfielder and national team captain Atiba Hutchinson, Doneil Henry, and last minute withdrawal Jonathan Osorio. The latter’s nagging head injury producing “neurological dysfunction” symptoms is becoming a concern to John Herdman. Tajon Buchanan has been a late arrival to the camp and is expected to play limited minutes on Tuesday as he recovers from injury. Alphonso Davies took a knock just prior to leaving the Qatar game, but it appears to have not been too serious and has resumed regular training with the team.

Panama v Canada - Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers
Tajon Buchanan vs Panama at Rommel Fernandez Stadium n 30 March 2022 World Cup qualifying action.
Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

Herdman has brought a seeming surfeit of wingers and attackers into the squad. Who and how many play is up for debate. Four of five strikers brought into the CanMNT camp saw the field against Qatar on Friday with the odd man out being Lucas Cavallini. Given Cavallini’s South American roots and early career playing professionally in Uruguay, he will be chomping at the bit to see action against La Celeste. However, it is more likely he comes off the bench rather than starts.

Wingers in the squad who did not see action against Qatar include Theo Corbeanu, Luca Koleosho, and the aforementioned Buchanan. The question on many supporters’ minds is whether Herdman will put the 18-year-old dual national Koleosho into the game. While a single appearance in a friendly match will not cap tie the young prospect, it may reflect a statement of intent for his future.

Uruguay is a two-time World Cup winner in 1930 and 1950, albeit both times before the tournament required qualification processes for all participating teams, or experienced significant boycotts by leading footballing nations.

The current Uruguay roster is transitioning to a younger team with many of the mainstays from the past decade missing out this window, and some finding more time on the bench than on the pitch. Household names such as second all-time leading scorer Edinson Cavani, long-time captain and all-time caps leader Diego Godin and his oftentimes central defence partner José Giménez have been ruled out by injuries.

However, veterans such as long-time goalkeeper Fernando Muslera, defender Martín Cáceres, who recently signed for the LA Galaxy, and all-time top scorer Luis Suárez are with the Uruguay squad. They will be supported by younger stars like strikers Darwin Núñez of Liverpool and Facundo Pellistri of Manchester United, and centre-back Ronald Araújo of Barcelona. Araújo, however, left the game with Iran early with an injury and is a doubt for the Canada game. The average age of the 23 outfield players for Uruguay this window is 26 years of age.

The real test for Les Rouges, as sought by Herdman, is with the Uruguay midfield. A source of strength for Uruguay no matter who they play in midfield, the straw that stirs the drink for the Uruguay midfield, is Federico Valverde. A rising star with his club Real Madrid, Valverde is a La Liga player of the month award nominee for September. Since the start of 2022, Uruguay tended to play with either a four or five man midfield, but its last two games have featured a midfield three.

The midfield battle with Uruguay is of particular interest to Herdman’s World Cup planning as Canada will face a pair of strong midfields in Belgium and Croatia in November. Missing Hutchinson and Osorio has thrown a wrench into Herdman’s planning. Nevertheless, it will be a test for the five midfielders called into this camp to provide a glimpse for Herdman to see what they might expect in the upcoming World Cup matches and to see which midfielders complement Stephen Eustáquio best should Hutchinson not be ready in November.

Jonathan David celebrates scoring against Panama at BMO Field 13 October 2022
Sean Pollock / Waking the Red

Canada is coming off a comfortable 2-0 win over World Cup hosts Qatar on Friday September 23rd while Uruguay were surprised by Iran 1-0 that same day. Iran put on a tenacious defensive display against an overall superior Uruguay side, but made the most of their limited chances and scored on a late counter. The loss was current Uruguay manager Diego Alonso’s first taste of defeat with La Celeste.

3 Keys to the Game

  1. How will the Canadian defence hold up against a high-quality attack such as Uruguay? From the perspective of many observers Canada entered the Octagonal with a suspect back line but then came out with the qualifying tournament’s best defensive record. Not to belabour the obvious, but Uruguay is decidedly not another CONCACAF opponent.
  2. The midfield battle. How will Canada fare against Uruguay’s dominant midfield? This is as good a test as Herdman could ask for his midfield, even with Canada missing a few important pieces in Hutchinson and Osorio. Will Canada be able to contain Valverde and Bentancur? Canada’s stamina and ability to maintain their defensive shape will be crucial as time on the ball is not expected to be in Canada’s favour.
  3. Canada’s counter-attack. Can Canada’s speed on the wings and quickness in transition tip the balance in a game where possession will most certainly be ceded to Uruguay? Will Canada generate sufficient opportunities for its strength to show itself and make a difference?

For Canada to succeed against Uruguay, let alone Belgium and Croatia in November, the first two keys need to be executed to such a degree that it will allow the third key to be executed by the team’s stars.

Predicted Line-ups

Canada – 3-4-3: Milan Borjan; Kamal Miller, Steven Vitoria, Alistair Johnston - Samuel Adekugbe, Stephen Eustáquio, Samuel Piette, Theo Corbeanu – Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin.

Uruguay – 4-3-3: Sergio Rochet; Damián Suárez, Augustin Rogel, Sebastián Cáceres, Mathías Olivera - Federico Valverde, Matías Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur - Facundo Pellistri, Luis Suárez, Darwin Núñez.