3 key questions ahead of Canada's vital World Cup clash with Croatia
Canada pushed Belgium to the absolute brink in a revealing Group F opener, proving to the world what John Herdman, his players, and the entire country already felt going into the World Cup: This team belongs.
But Canada's fearless performance didn't translate into a win. Ultimately, there's no room for moral victories at the World Cup. The 1-0 loss, even if it was harsh on the Canadians, means a positive result - and ideally all three points - is a must against Croatia. Herdman knows that.
"There can't be any sort of complacency. There can't be any situation now where we think we've arrived and achieved something," Herdman told James Duthie of TSN ahead of Sunday's meeting with the beaten World Cup finalist from four years ago. "We took some respect and pride out of that performance (against Belgium) ... Now we've got to take three points."
What does Canada need to do to accomplish that? Below, we examine three key questions heading into the critical contest.
What will Canada's XI look like?
Against Belgium, Herdman stayed true to what helped Canada get to Qatar in the first place. A shape-shifting 3-4-3 setup - which looked like a 5-2-3 when out of possession - swarmed the second-ranked team in the world, disrupting the Red Devils' game with a high press that was equal parts calculated and aggressive. The biggest surprise on Wednesday was the decision to play superstar Alphonso Davies in a wing-back role more akin to the left-back spot he takes up for Bayern Munich than the attacking position he typically occupies for Canada.
Assuming all the players adequately recover from the enormous physical, mental, and emotional output in the draining match just days ago, expect Herdman's side to be aggressive once again. This is not the time to be timid.
Getting Davies higher up the pitch where he can consistently get on the ball in more dangerous areas would be wise, especially considering Sam Adekugbe, one of the standout performers in CONCACAF qualifying, can seamlessly slot in on the left flank. But Herdman could also opt for a 3-5-2 base formation that brings an extra man into midfield and, potentially, Cyle Larin up front.
Despite Jonathan David's wayward shooting against Belgium - he didn't hit the target with any of his team-high seven attempts - the mobile Lille forward is critical in the pressing game, which will be particularly important against a Croatian side equipped to play out from the back.
Croatia, coming off the back of a lifeless 0-0 draw against Morocco in its first game of the tournament, will show more vigor against Canada and try to get into a rhythm in a way that Belgium, despite having more possession, was simply never able to.
Potential starting lineups
Canada's primary task will be shutting down the supply lines to Luka Modric, the iconic Croatian midfielder and former Ballon d'Or winner. The 37-year-old, who was unusually passive and unable to make an impact against Morocco, remains the engine of Zlatko Dalic's team. In tandem with fellow midfield stars Marcelo Brozovic and dynamic dribbler Mateo Kovacic, Modric drives his side forward. Slowing him down is paramount.
Can Croatia handle Canada's press?
The answer to this question will have an immense impact on the final result.
Canada dictated the match against Belgium, using the aforementioned high press to overrun and surprisingly - considering the opposition's experience and pedigree - overwhelm Roberto Martinez's side. The Belgians consistently struggled to progress the ball from their own end due to Martinez's odd decision to have midfielder Youri Tielemans at least start the contest positioned high and wide to the right, which left Belgium light in the middle and zapped the team's ability to string passes together. As a result, Kevin De Bruyne was largely neutralized, completing only 28 passes (71.8% of his attempts).
Croatia, having an additional body in central areas, shouldn't have quite the same issue, meaning Canada's press will need to be razor-sharp. Belgium did play through it occasionally, allowing De Bruyne to stride forward into vast amounts of space.
How Canada enacts the high pressure will be fascinating. Dejan Lovren, a surprise starter against Morocco, could be the key. The Canadians clearly highlighted Leander Dendoncker as the trigger to instigate the press against Belgium - he was pinned back and trapped near his own goal line multiple times - and Lovren, who is susceptible to mistakes, could cough up the ball if hounded.
David will need to find the right balance between making Lovren uncomfortable and shielding Brozovic, who conducts Croatia's play at the base of midfield. If Brozovic has time to receive the ball, look up, and spray passes around the field, Canada will be chasing shadows.
How to avoid mental lapses?
Despite dominating the flow of play against the Belgians - the one-sided stats don't lie - Canada learned a harsh lesson: At this level, the slightest lapse in concentration gets punished. That's precisely what happened with Michy Batshuayi's decisive goal in the opener. All it takes is a split second.
The Canadians switched off just minutes away from the halftime interval. As he did for much of the match, Alistair Johnston pushed forward to deny a line-breaking pass to Eden Hazard, leaving a gap behind him. Alone, that's not too much of an issue - it's built into Canada's system, and having three center-backs means there's additional cover when one of them, usually Johnston, steps out from the defensive line.
(Image source: TSN)
But Steven Vitoria got caught watching the ball, which created a gaping hole for Toby Alderweireld. At this level against the very best players in the world, that looping ball is an easy one. Alderweireld can pick this pass out in his sleep. Ironically, he appeared to be looking for Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, who made a darting run inside to exploit the space, and not Batshuayi, who actually ended up getting on the end of the long pass and finding the net.
(Image source: TSN)
Either way, it was a maddening way for Canada to concede - from one straight ball over the top of the defense - in a game Herdman's team otherwise dominated. But the margins are razor thin.