Sometimes the scoreline simply does not tell the whole story. Semi-finalists in 2018, the top-ranked team in the world for more than three years, Belgium duly beat a Canada side absent from this stage since 1986. Most expected them to; just not like this.
Because Belgium were dismal in victory, Canada marvellous in defeat.
They were denied by moments of brilliance in either penalty box, whether Michy Batshuayi’s wonderful winner or Thibaut Courtois’ terrific penalty save. The points will go to Roberto Martinez, but the plaudits should belong to John Herdman, whose underdogs made this a memorable occasion.
In 2022, as in 1986, Canada are pointless and goalless in the World Cup 2022 but, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland, from the 49th parallel to the Arctic Circle, theirs was a performance to be proud of.
There was a boldness to Herdman’s high-pressing tactics as Canada were imbued with positivity, fizzing with energy. They made Belgium look old – or Belgium made themselves look old – though the most aged of everyone on the pitch was Atiba Hutchinson, the 39-year-old Canada captain who became the oldest outfield starter in World Cup history. There was history, too, for Herdman, the first person to manage both men’s and women’s teams at World Cups.
He has come a long way. So have the travelling Canadians, whose frequent roars were a reminder of what the World Cup means to those who have spent decades dreaming of ending their exile from this stage. The Belgians were outnumbered, outsung and outshot: at 22-9, it was not even close.
There were moments for Canada to savour: the outstanding sliding blocks from Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea when Batshuayi seemed set to score, and the time Stephen Eustaquio nutmegged Kevin de Bruyne.
But there were a couple they could rue, too, and their most lustrous talent had most to regret.
For Alphonso Davies, the refugee who arrived in Canada at four and will probably prove his country’s greatest player, it was the day when he should have scored their maiden World Cup goal.
But perhaps the wait to take his penalty was agonisingly long: too long, perhaps, for Davies, whose tame, telegraphed spot-kick was parried by Courtois.
It was a game of two VAR decisions: one given, one not. The initial verdict was merely that Tajon Buchanan’s hooked shot was deflected through to Courtois. A VAR review later and there was a mighty roar: the telling touch had come from Yannick Carrasco’s hand and Canada had their 10th-minute chance. Yet they were unfortunate to be denied a second spot-kick after Axel Witsel tripped Richie Laryea.
And a couple of minutes later, Belgium pounced. It was a beautiful goal in an ugly display, Toby Alderweireld displaying his prowess as a long passer with a 50-yard ball, Michy Batshuayi latching on to it with a sweetly struck half-volley. And yet Canada should rue the manner of it: unlocked by a straight pass from Belgium’s half, it felt far too easy.
But in an instant, the absence of the injured Romelu Lukaku did not matter. It extended Batshuayi’s outstanding goalscoring record for his country: for all the deficiencies in the rest of his game, he can be a potent finisher.
Belgium had little else to enjoy. Play like this and it is inconceivable they will go as far as they did in 2018. Eden Hazard produced one gorgeous touch but was otherwise quiet. De Bruyne looked frustrated by the failings around him. Yannick Carrasco and Youri Tielemans did not even make it back out for the second half.
Martinez brought on Amadou Onana and Thomas Meunier at half-time; that each was booked in swift succession suggested they were told to add toughness. But they scarcely brought the fluency Belgium were lacking and Alderweireld, who was defiant in defence, had to make a series of clearances. At the final whistle, many of his team-mates sank to their haunches in a combination of exhaustion and relief.
Because Canada had started at pace and been relentless thereafter. Jonathan David allied elusiveness with profligacy in attack. He was denied a goal partly because of a series of blocks from the Belgian defence and partly because of his own inability to hit the target. Courtois was at least tested by Alistair Johnston, who connected crisply with a rising drive.
As Canada sought an equaliser, David skied a shot from inside the six-yard box and headed wide. Yet they missed that clinical touch Batshuayi provided. Now, after losing to the team who finished third in the last World Cup, they face the side who came second, in Croatia. Canada were ranked 72nd then but, as they displayed, they are a very different proposition now.
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