Despite outplaying Belgium for the vast majority of the encounter, a failure to capitalise on their dominance ultimately came back to bite an impressive Canada outfit.
The match marked Canada’s long-awaited return to the world stage, having last featured in a FIFA World Cup all the way back in 1986. 36 years later and it was the Canadians who quickly set about making up for lost time, causing multiple headaches for an under-siege Belgium defensive unit in the opening half.
It’s no surprise that Canada finished top of the CONCACAF qualification phase, with their dynamic attacking players capable of troubling most oppositions. Led by the likes of Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, Canada entered its World Cup opener unbeaten in its previous 12 CONCACAF matches.
This air of confidence translated onto the pitch against the second-ranked Belgians, seeing them threaten Roberto Martinez’s side from the outset. Boasting a front three with electric speed, Canada penetrated Belgium’s press to exploit space on the wings, allowing them to deliver multiple balls into the penalty box.
A reflection of their positive start to proceedings, Canada registered seven attempts on goal compared to Belgium’s one inside the first 15 minutes of the match. A Belgium team widely expected to control the tempo of the game instead found themselves immediately on the back foot.
The right-hand side in particular proved to be a great avenue of attack for John Herdman’s team. Tajon Buchanan, who was well supported by Alistair Johnston, tormented Yannick Carrasco, utilising his pace and trickery to wreak havoc around the penalty box.
This relentless wave of pressure culminated in a successful penalty shout for Canada, with a VAR check confirming a Carrasco handball from an attempted Buchanan shot. Up stepped Alphonso Davies, whose low shot couldn’t beat the outstretched Thibaut Courtois, handing Belgium a lifeline.
Davies’ miss would go on to prove costly as a lack of cutting edge in the final third leaves Canada still in search of its maiden World Cup goal.
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In contrast, Michy Batshuayi made no mistake when put through on goal by a long central ball from defender Toby Alderweireld. Largely against the run of play, Batshuayi’s clinical finish displayed the ruthlessness which Canada desperately missed.
His 27th international goal late in the first half was ultimately the match winner, despite being only Belgium’s second shot on goal up until that point.
Nevertheless, Canada certainly lost no admirers with its tenacious performance. Facing a Belgium starting line-up packed with world-class talent, a youthful Canadian team outworked their more fancied opposition.
The first half especially saw Canada win the majority of loose balls and duels, creating numerous chances in the front third. Central to this midfield dominance was Stephen Eustaquio, who outshone the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Youri Tielemans in the middle of the pitch. Eustaquio utilised his instinctual creativity to release Canada’s wide players on several occasions.
A testament to Canada’s stranglehold over the contest even when behind at the break, Martinez’s hand was forced into making two substitutions at the main interval. The additions of Thomas Meunier and Amadou Onana signalled an acknowledgement of the threat posed by Canada’s forward firepower.
These changes did provide Belgium with a stronger defensive presence, which turned out to be enough to help the favourites hold off an onslaught of Canada pressure in the second half.
Canada’s fast start to its first World Cup appearance since 1986 saw them enter the half-time break having recorded 14 shots, exceeding Belgium’s paltry four. Remarkably, Canada produced more shots in the first half than the country did throughout the entire 1986 World Cup.
At the final whistle, Canada’s shot tally climbed to 22, representing a plus 13 differential compared to their counterparts. However, football matches are won by putting the ball in the back of the net, a skill which Canada weren’t able to execute on the night.
For Belgium, a hard-fought victory over Canada means that they have won each of their last eight World Cup group games. Coming off a semi-final exit at the 2018 World Cup; Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ will be hoping to progress further this time around.
Thibaut Courtois’ vital penalty save was also a major flashpoint in the contest. Interestingly, he is the first Belgium goalkeeper to save a penalty at the World Cup since 1966.
Where to next?
Canada will now need to reset ahead of a clash with fellow Group F opponents Morocco. Meanwhile, Belgium can book themselves a spot in the Round of 16 with a win over Croatia.
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