AL RAYYAN, Qatar—It all came apart, or was taken apart. If Canada’s first match at this World Cup was an inspirational loss, the second was painful: a 4-1 defeat to Croatia that showed the seams, the weaknesses, how styles make fights. Canada needed to beat Croatia to control its own destiny in Group F — or, as coach John Herdman might call it, Group Effed.
Canada cannot escape its group now. After the match, goalkeeper Milan Borjan gathered the team and spoke. He tried to salvage this.
“I told them that I’m very proud to be their brother, that we have an amazing brotherhood. When it’s good, when it’s bad, they have to put their heads up, continue fighting,” said Borjan. “It’s a very good experience for us after 36 years to play the World Cup; it’s something special. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but you know life goes on and we have one more game. We scored that first goal in the World Cup, so now we need a win. And then, you know, from then on prepare for the future.”
For 25 minutes, you could dream.
Canada scored so fast: a shocking end-to-end series that involved the newly starting Cyle Larin, a brilliant Tajon Buchanan and Alphonso Davies putting in his first-ever header for Canada in the second minute for our first men’s World Cup goal. Canada could have scored again and looked a lot like the team that should have beaten Belgium. What if?
But then came the disassembling. Stephen Eustáquio’s hamstring was a problem. He gutted through the Belgium match, but here Canada’s only top-class midfielder was subbed off at halftime and it should have been earlier. Thirty-nine-year-old team captain Atiba Hutchinson had trouble moving. Canada didn’t start any other true midfielders.
So, Croatia’s peerless midfield trio of Luka Modric, Marcelo Brozovic and Mateo Kovacic went to work and beat the Canadian press. It shocked Canada. Instead of pressing, they fell back. Hutchinson said it wasn’t a tactical choice, it just … happened, and 25 minutes in the game turned into a hunt. That it was only 2-1 at halftime was almost lucky. At half’s end, Canada was like a boxer holding on to the ropes and waiting for a bell.
And Herdman either ran out of options or didn’t take charge. Eustáquio told the coach his hamstring was a problem around the 35-minute mark, and by then it was also clear that Hutchinson just didn’t have the legs for this.
It was his 100th cap for Canada, and he has provided years of tremendous service to this country. But Hutchinson was being beaten clean in space. He lost Croatia’s Andrej Kramaric in the box on the first goal, just after Eustáquio told Herdman he was hobbling. Hutchinson was pushed backwards by Josip Juranovic before he found Marko Livaja for the second goal, just before halftime.
Herdman said the second goal was where it turned, but it started before that, really. The coach asked Hutchinson if he wanted out in the 55th minute, which was the plan — against Belgium, Hutchinson could have come out before then — but the captain said no.
Herdman has developed a trust with his players, and input flows both ways, but he should have disagreed. Eustáquio said his hamstring was bad in the 35th minute; Croatia’s first two goals came in the 36th and 44th minutes. Hutchinson stayed in at 55; Croatia scored its third goal in the 70th, and Hutchinson exited in the 72nd.
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You could argue the options. Sam Piette was targeted when Herdman put him in Eustáquio’s position in the pre-tournament friendly versus Japan. Jonathan Osorio and Ismaël Koné are not defenders. More than anything, it looked like Canada ran and played so hard against Belgium, then ran out of midfielders against the best midfield in the world and didn’t have a plan B.
“They figured out the spaces, they figured out our formation and figured out our pressing cues, and they started to use those to their advantage,” said Osorio. “They’re a very smart team. They’re the best, the highest level.”
Herdman defended Hutchinson after the match, likely out of loyalty, but when asked again you saw something closer to the truth.
“In that first half, there was a moment where Modric and Brozovic eventually just started to pick apart our midfield, and we needed a tactical shift a little bit quicker,” said Herdman, “and maybe even the subs a bit quicker as well. (Eustáquio), I probably could have gotten him out in that 35th minute, might have made the difference in that moment.
“But I’m gonna think about these things and reflect. I’m a bit raw at the moment.”
In the second half, Jonathan David had Canada’s best chance, but it was brushed up and over the bar by the Croatian ’keeper. And Croatia ate Canada on the counterattack for the final two goals.
So, pain. Croatia went out of its way to goad Herdman over his much-reported exhortation after the Belgium game that Canada was off to “Eff Croatia.” Some substitutes celebrated near his coaching box after the first goal, and in the post-game press conference Andrej Kramaric, who scored the first and third Croatian goals, said, “These are words that have motivated the whole of Croatia. I want to thank the coach of Canada for the motivation. He could have chosen better words … in the end, Croatia demonstrated who effed whom.”
That’s fun, sure, but mostly it looked more like Croatia was a far better team with a structural advantage, more depth, more big-game experience. Meanwhile, Canada did boss Belgium, but Belgium was then beaten 2-0 by Morocco. Belgium now has to beat Croatia to escape the group.
And if anything, that performance may have obscured the reality: Canada is only world-class on the wings, and with Eustáquio. They have maximized their talent, their team spirit, their fight, and Belgium was the game they should have won. Win that and this doesn’t matter.
That wasn’t what happened. A fine Morocco team awaits Thursday, and this will be the end of the beginning, you’d hope. Davies and Buchanan and Eustáquio and David and Koné and Alistair Johnston have time left and room still to grow. Herdman may not have had a perfect World Cup, but he will learn too, and Canada would be lucky to keep him.
All that’s left now is one match, and then the lessons of the journey. They did us proud to get here. They did what they could. But in a few days, Canada’s World Cup is over.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
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