After pandemic-relating delays and format changes, Canada finally kicks of its 2022 Qatar World Cup qualifying campaign this week.
Canada faces Bermuda in Florida Thursday, before a game versus Cayman Islands Sunday. They will then complete the Concacaf World Cup qualifying first round group stage with games against Aruba and Suriname in June.
“It is an opportunity for this group of men to do something special for their country that hasn’t been done for a long time,” said head coach John Herdman Tuesday. “Our players do not need much motivation, they’re just really excited to play for their country again and every time we’re together we remind them that this team can change football in this nation.”
Here are four talking points ahead of Canada’s opening matches:
1. No room for error – Canada must win
Canada only announced its squad two days before Thursday’s match against Bermuda. This is far from ideal. But there’s no time to complain. These are extraordinary times. And the task at hand remains clear.
Only the top team from each opening round group of five advances to the second round playoff stage to then compete for spot in the final round.
Canada can’t afford a slip up against any of the opposition during the first round’s four matches. Anything other than two victories this week, will heap unwanted additional pressure on a team that’s expected to at least advance to the second stage.
This is a moment when results matter more than the quality of performances. Coach John Herdman’s team needs to get its wins anyway it can.
2. Canada missing familiar faces
Canada will be without some regular key players, including Jonathan David and Scott Arfield.
France’s Ligue 1 put extra pandemic-related restrictions on travel for its non-European Union players. As a result star-striker Jonathan David will remain in France with his club Lille during this international break.
Midfielder Scott Arfield said he will stay in Scotland this week instead of traveling to play for Canada. The Rangers midfielder has chosen to not to travel this international break, citing tiredness and travel time as his reasons.
“I think the journeys do take a toll,” said Arfield last week in the Glasgow Times. “I’m not going to sugar coat it. The flights you take, particularly all over North America, do take its toll when you come back.”
3. Canada still have a strong squad and have no excuses not to advance
Though Canada will be without some big names for the first two matches of qualifying, Herdman and his crew will have no excuses should they fail to advance to the second round.
On paper, Canada can put together a squad with enough experience and talent to earn maximum points this week.
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The likes of Alphonso Davies, Cyle Larin, Atiba Hutchinson, Junior Hoilett, Samuel Piette and Mark Anthony Kaye are all available. And this should be enough to beat teams ranked around 100 places below Canada in the FIFA World Rankings – Bermuda (169) and Cayman Island (193).
But admittedly, such assumptions have disappointed Canadian football fans in the past.
4. Where to play Davies?
Herdman should decide, once and for all, where he wants Alphonso Davies to play for the national team. Canada’s most famous player slots in at leftback for his club Bayern Munich. And that works well for a club bursting at the seams with superstars.
But many have called for Herdman to deploy Davies further up the pitch, at left wing/forward, for Canada, where he can have more impact on the game.
Davies put in a memorable performance for Canada’s 2-0 Concacaf Nations League win over USA in Toronto in October 2019. He scored a goal and terrorized the USA defence all night.
But a month later on the return match against USA, Davies was placed back in defence – Herdman opting for a more conservative strategy. Canada lost 4-1 with Davies having contributed little.
The answer seems obvious – why wouldn’t you put, arguably, your most prodigious talent up front? And Davies himself would prefer to play upfront for his country, according to Herdman.
But whatever Herdman decides, he should stick with it and provide his squad, and Davies in particular, some consistency. The time for experimenting is over.