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2022 FIFA World Cup: Keys to Canada vs. Belgium

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DOHA, Qatar – Thirty-six years of heartbreak, upset and derision all lead to Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, where the Canadian men’s national will play its first World Cup match in nearly four decades.

Belgium awaits as Canada opens its Group F play on Wednesday, and while the Red Devils are the favourites, Les Rouges can spring a surprise if all goes according to plan.

“It will be a real good test for the staff and for the players,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his pre-match press conference on Tuesday.

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“It’s something we’ll learn from, but more importantly, it’s something we’re going to really go towards, and I think that’s the opportunity we have here. Coming into a game like this, we don’t have a great amount to lose, just a genuine opportunity to make it our cup final.”

It’s safe to say Canada needs to be almost flawless in order for that to become reality.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of Canada’s World Cup opener against Belgium.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

Here is how Canada could line up on Wednesday.

Herdman confirmed that Davies should be in contention to start, so that alleviates any concerns. Ditto for Stephen Eustaquio after battling a minor muscle injury during pre-World Cup preparations.

“I don’t think there was any doubt we’d be starting him,” said Herdman. “[Davies] is fit now. He’s hit his markers, he’s ready to go.”

In possession, Atiba Hutchinson should occasionally drop into the back three to allow Alistair Johnston to get forward as a right wingback. Eustaquio will be deployed box-to-box and Junior Hoilett should play in a free role behind Jonathan David, with Davies drifting from the left to the centre throughout the game.

The formation will shift into a 4-4-2 when Belgium owns possession, but it might also become a 5-3-2 depending on far it progresses the ball into Canada’s defensive third. Canada utilized both shapes in the 2-1 win over Japan last Thursday in those situations.

As for Belgium, this could be how they set up against Canada.

Star striker Romelu Lukaku has been ruled out of the opener, so Michy Batshuayi will start up front.

The only dilemmas for coach Roberto Martinez surround his defenders. Jan Vertonghen could make way for Arthur Theate, while Timothy Castagne will compete with Thomas Meunier at right wingback.

Regardless, expect a lot of activity on the flanks for Belgium, which loves to utilize its attack-minded wingbacks with the underlapping Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard.

CANADA’S X-FACTOR: TRANSITIONS

With or without Jan Vertonghen starting on the left side of Belgium’s defence, there will be transitional opportunities for Canada.

Belgium may not concede a high number of counter-attacks, but the efficiency with which opponents generate shots must be a concern for Martinez.

Counter-attacking stats over the last 12 months, via Wyscout.

Egypt edged Belgium 2-1 in a friendly last week, and despite producing only six shots, the Pharaohs managed to wreak havoc in transition via the high press or recoveries from their defensive third before countering the other way.

“This is the highest level of football,” said Canada midfielder Jonathan Osorio. “The game is very, very fast, so the transitions are quicker. The way the ball moves is quicker, everything is faster than we think.”

Recovering the ball in Belgium’s half sounds difficult, but it’s doable. Like Egypt, the Netherlands was selective with its pressing when against Belgium in Nations League on Sept. 26. The common trait was setting up in a 5-2-3 or 5-3-2 to ensure maximum coverage out wide against the Belgian wingbacks.

Canada exhibited this vs. Japan with David and Hoilett harrying the Japanese defenders.

The only caveat is Canada needs to produce higher-quality shots from those situations in order to trouble Belgium.

Canada’s pace should behoove it against Belgium’s high defensive line in possession. If Egypt can capitalize, so can the Canadians.

“They play in transition and they have a lot of speed so we have to be prepared for this,” said Vertonghen of Canada’s strengths. “That’s why our game against Egypt was a good wake-up call. We cannot underestimate them.”

“They look like a team that’s very clear in their concepts,” Martinez said. “A very dynamic, competitive team that know their strengths, a team that loves to open the legs and use the big spaces, so we give them huge respect.”

The fact that Canada was effective in both offensive and defensive transitional moments against a rapid team like Japan proves that it is capable of replicating this strategy.

“Of course it brings confidence,” said Hutchinson. “We’re in a good state where we know that we can play against any team in the world.”

“I think we showed against a top-20 team that we can play at that intensity and at that pace,” said Osorio. “That’s a big confidence boost for us and for our midfield that we showed that we can keep that intensity.”

BELGIUM’S X-FACTOR: KEVIN DE BRUYNE (DUH)

There’s no stopping Kevin De Bruyne. You can only hope to limit the damage.

Even man-marking De Bruyne isn’t a guaranteed strategy. The playmaker will wait for his marker to face the ball and away from him, enabling De Bruyne to execute a run on the player’s blind side and into the box.

Considering Lukaku is injured and Eden Hazard is a bit-part player with Real Madrid, the onus will be on De Bruyne to lift Belgium’s attack.

De Bruyne loves drifting into the right half-space and dictating games from that area, so the task of marking him will likely be Sam Adekugbe’s undertaking.

Adekugbe, a complete two-way full-back in every sense of the term, will relish that challenge. The 27-year-old has gone from a squad player to a key starter within a year and could be one of several breakout candidates for Canada at this World Cup.

Countless observers will especially take notice if Adekugbe caps De Bruyne’s influence on the game.

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Croatia coach sends Canada a stern message ahead of World Cup showdown

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Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic sent Canada a message Saturday at the World Cup. And he didn’t need the F-word to deliver it.

Dalic offered up a stern statement when asked about John Herdman’s emotional words after Canada’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

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Asked in a pitchside interview what he had said to his team in a post-game huddle, the Canada coach replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff— Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”

While Herdman delivered the last line with a smile, Dalic clearly did not see the humour.

When a Canadian reporter at Saturday’s pre-game news conference asked Dalic for his team’s response to Herdman’s heat, the Croatia coach lectured his opposition ahead of Sunday’s showdown at Khlalifa International Stadium.

Dalic used the word “respect” 12 times in his answer.

“The Croatian team deserves respect from everyone … We respect everyone, equally so,” he said through an interpreter. “We expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worthy of their respect. The Canadians must also have respect for us. This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect. We are the (2018 World Cup runners-up), not Brazil, Spain or other countries.”

“I shall not focus or comment on any other people’s comments,” he added. “We will be prepared (Sunday), we will be fit and we will demonstrate respect for Canada … and for everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view”

Croatian forward Ivan Perisic then backed up his coach, saying simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Sunday may prove otherwise but it seems, motivationally speaking, Canada has taken a knife to a gunfight.

Both the 41st-ranked Canadians and No. 12 Croatia need to get points out of the match. Belgium tops Group F with three points while Croatia and Morocco both have one point after their scoreless draw.

Canada needs to secure at least a point if it hopes to have any chance of reaching the knockout round. A loss Sunday and the Canadians can finish with no more than three points while Croatia ups its total to four. And no matter what happens in Sunday’s match between No. 2 Belgium and No. 22 Morocco, one of those teams will have at least four points.

With only two teams advancing out of the group, that would render Canada’s final group game next Thursday with Morocco meaningless in terms of tournament progression.

“At the end of the day, both teams really have to win this game,” said Herdman.

Croatian reporters didn’t bother engaging Zlatko on Herdman’s inflammatory words. They had already done so, with tabloids back home having a field day.

In contrast, three of the first four questions in Herdman’s availability were about his post-game hot take. Another came later.

The Canada coach, who had already addressed the issue on Thursday, tried to laugh off the reaction he had sparked in the Croatia camp.

He insisted he was on task “and loving the experience.” And he rejected the assertion that his words were just another motivational tool.

“We’ve been waiting 36 years to get here. I’ve used all my motivation tactics in the 20-odd games it took to get here,” he said in self-deprecating fashion.

But he maintained his words to his players in the post-game huddle after Belgium were simply “to remind them that there’s another task ahead.”

And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling it a “top top top top football team.”

“(A) hell of a test. Hell of a test for this team,” he added. “But we’re excited.”

Herdman called Sunday’s match a “defining moment for Canada in this World Cup. It’s one of those do-or-die games now that we have to perform in to stay at a World Cup.”

Dalic, meanwhile, called Canada “a tough team full of self-confidence.”

The two sides have never met before.

The Croatian roster features the likes of Luka Modric (Real Madrid), Perisic (Tottenham), Marcelo Brozovic (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovacic (Chelsea) and Mario Pasalic (Atalanta). Only six of its 26-man roster play at home in Croatia, with four of those at Dinamo Zagreb.

Despite that talent, Croatia had its hands full with No. 22 Morocco in its tournament opener, playing to a scoreless draw in a game that saw each team put just two shots on target.

Croatia goes into Sunday’s match riding a seven-game unbeaten streak (5-0-2) dating back to a 3-0 loss to Austria in June in UEFA Nations League play. Croatia avenged that defeat with a 3-1 decision over the Austrians in September.

Croatia has outscored the opposition 9-3 over that run, which includes a win and tie against No. 4 France.

“With all due respect to Croatia, they have a very very good team. It’s going to be tough for us,” said Canadian midfielder Stephen Eustaquio. “But it’s going to be tough for them as well.”

The Canadians, who blamed traffic for showing up 41 minutes late for their news conference before the Belgium game, arrived two minutes early Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.

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Croatian coach feels disrespected by Canadian coach's comment at FIFA World Cup – Toronto Sun

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DOHA, Qatar — Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic said he felt disrespected by Canada head coach John Herdman for his comment in a group huddle following a loss to Belgium on Wednesday.

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After the emotional 1-0 loss at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Herdman gathered his troops on the field and gave an impassioned speech.

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When asked following the game what he told his team, Herdman admitted he told his group to ‘F’ Croatia, in reference to Canada’s second game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

On the eve of the game Sunday (11 a.m. ET) at the Khalifa International Stadium, Croatian coach Zlatko Zlatko Dalic was again asked about the comment at the pre-match press conference here on Saturday.

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“Canadians must have respect for us and this way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” Dalic said through an interpreter. “We are the runners up (2018 World Cup), it wasn’t Brazil or Spain or any other country. We are the runners up, we were second in the world, we are worth of respect the way we played, the way we behave, the way we respect all others, is the reason we are worthy or respect.

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“I shall not focus or comment on other people’s comment. We will be prepared, be fit and we will demonstrate respect from Canada and from everyone else. We expect respect just as we exercise this view.”

Croatia was a surprising World Cup finalist four years ago in Russia, beating England in the semifinal before losing to France. Along the way, Croatia also beat Argentina in the group stage.

Croatia was held to a scoreless draw in its opening match by Morocco on Wednesday. Croatia concluded the group stage against Belgium on Thursday.

“The Croatia team deserves respect from everyone; we have proven that by the way we’ve played with our conduct at the World Cup; since the very beginning we’ve deserved respect and dignity,” Dalic said. “We have two (World Cup) medals in the last 30 years and we’re up there with Germany and France and countries like that have such an achievement. We respect everyone equally so we expect our opposing teams to respect us. We are worth of their respect.”

Croatia striker Ivan Perisic was also asked for his thoughts on Herdman’s comments.

“I second the head coach,” he said. “And I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

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Canada coach Herdman jokes about Croatian tabloid

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DOHA, Qatar –

Canada had just lost its first World Cup match in 36 years, outplaying Belgium for much of a 1-0 defeat, and an emotional John Herdman revealed in the on-field interview what he had just told his players during a postgame huddle.

“I told them they belong here. And we’re going to go and F Croatia,” the coach said with a smile, using a single letter to avoid a televised profanity. “That’s as simple as it gets.”

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His words reverberated all the way to Zagreb as Sunday’s Croatia-Canada game approached.

Croatia’s 24 Sata (24 Hours) tabloid ran a fullpage photo of a naked Herdman with Maple Leaf flags over his mouth and private parts and a headline that translated to: “You have the mouth, but do you have the (guts) as well?”

Commenting Saturday on Herdman’s words, Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic used the word “respect” 13 times in a 90-second span.

“This way of putting words together is not a sign of respect,” he said through a translator. “The way we play, the way we behave and the way we respect all others are the reasons we are worthy of respect.”

Sitting next to Dalic, winger Ivan Perisic said simply: “I second the head coach and I cannot wait for the match to begin.”

Speaking before Dalic, Herdman used humour in an attempt to defuse tensions.

“When you get a text from your wife telling me you need to start working out before you get home, yeah, you think you know something’s going on,” Herdman said, noting the newspaper image was of a trimmer midsection than his own.

“My wife’s coming after you guys,” he told a reporter from that Croatian paper, laughing. “She wishes she got that guy. I’ve got a bit more of a belly than that. I’ve been eating too much.”

On Thursday, Herdman had explained what his intent was.

“You say those things in an impassioned moment trying to inspire your team in a huddle, and when you’re asked the question what you said in that huddle, yeah, it was what I said,” he said.

“It’s not massively respectful to Croatian people and the Croatian national team. I understand very well where they’re at on the world stage. But in that moment, you’ve taken your men to that next place,” he added.

Playing Croatia for the first time, Canada could be eliminated with another defeat.

Croatia, which lost the 2018 final to France, is the world’s 12th-ranked team and opened with a 0-0 draw against Morocco. Star Luka Modric, playing what is likely his last World Cup at age 37, put a first-half shot over the crossbar.

Canada has played just four World Cup games in its history and still is searching for its first goal. The Canadians outshot the Belgians 21-9 but gave up a 44th-minute goal to Michy Batshuayi from a long pass. Alphonso Davies had a chance to put Canada ahead in the 11th minute but his penalty kick was saved by goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois.

“We know exactly what our slingshot is and we’ve got to be ready to attack that across different games now because, as I say, the cover’s off from Canada,” Herdman said. “I think people come into this game, the next games respecting us a little bit more.”

Captain Atiba Hutchinson, at 39 the only member of the current roster alive when Canada went 0-3 at the 1986 World Cup, can make his 100th international appearance Sunday — Julian de Guzman is second with 89.

Midfielder Jonathan Osorio is looking forward to facing the last World Cup’s runner-up.

“We like to play the best,” he said after the Belgium match. “We’re excited for the challenge.”

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