Batshuayi sinks courageous Canada on return to world stage

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John Herdman's rise to prominence is a remarkable tale of persistence, grit and self-belief.

It has taken him to the outer reaches of a world map, and on Wednesday night, he achieved his career highlight somewhere in the middle.

In leading Canada against Belgium at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, Herdman became the first manager to coach in both the men's and women's World Cups, having previously taken charge of New Zealand Women in 2007 and 2011, and Canada Women in 2015.

Born in north-east England, the 47-year-old - a primary school teacher by trade - has embarked on a whirlwind journey that culminated in being appointed head coach of the Canada men's team in January 2018.

There was no slowing down when he joined the Canucks, the upward trajectory hitting an even steeper curve.

A three-stage qualification programme for the World Cup had some memorable moments, winning during the Covid pandemic in Haiti, then in the middle of a military coup, and overcoming more fancied teams like Mexico and the United States to finish top of the eight-team final round and secure a place among world football's elite for the first time in 36 years.

All well and good, but surely this incredible run would hit the buffers against Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Thibaut Courtois and Co.

Ultimately, it did, but every Canadian will be asking how? Herdman's side were magnificent, particularly in the opening 45 minutes, when they squandered chance after chance to take a deserved lead.

The best fell to Alphonso Davies who was unable to beat Courtois with a 10th-minute penalty after Yannick Carrasco was harshly adjudged to have handled Jonathan David's shot. It was particularly unfortunate for Davies, born in a Ghanaian refugee camp before moving to Canada aged five to become the figurehead for his adopted nation.

Junior Hoilett shot wide, Alistair Johnson's fierce drive brought another save from Courtois and Toby Alderweireld did brilliantly to block a goalbound effort from David.

Belgium in contrast were an absolute shambles. Second to every ball, wasteful in possession and tactically disorganised.

After 41 minutes, De Bruyne had had enough, throwing his arms into the air after another aimless Alderweireld punt forward. The Manchester City playmaker sought out coach Roberto Martinez for an urgent debrief - and promptly missed Belgium taking the lead.

This time Alderweireld did locate his target and Michy Batshuayi, who up to that point looked like a man incapable of tying his own shoelaces, fired past Canada goalkeeper Milan Borjan.

Canada still ought to have gone into the break level but Tajon Buchanan fired Richie Laryea's cross over from six yards.

Laryea showed his qualities at the other end after 68 minutes, tracking back superbly to deny Batshuayi after De Bruyne, at the third time of asking, managed to pick the right pass when in a promising position.

Substitute Cyle Larin brought another fine stop from Courtois with 10 minutes of normal time to go but Canada could not find the equaliser they so richly deserved as Belgium held on to move top of Group F.

This World Cup has been billed as the last chance for Belgium's 'Golden Generation' but, on this evidence, their hopes of leaving Qatar with silverware remain slim. The impending return of the injured Romelu Lukaku will add another dimension but question marks remain over an ageing defence and the tactical nous of Martinez.

In stark contrast, Herdman's stock continues to rise. He's come a long way, but you sense this is just the beginning.