John Herdman was leaving the stage when it was announced the player of the match would be next up to face the media. The recipient of Fifa’s award left the Canada head coach stunned. “Kevin De Bruyne is player of the match? Wow,” he said. If there was an insult, it was only to Canada.
The Belgium playmaker was embarrassed to be singled out for praise after Canada brought everything to their first World Cup appearance for 36 years except a clinical touch. His honesty, and Michy Batshuayi’s ruthless finish, were the only highlights of a worrying night for Roberto Martínez’s team. “I don’t think I had a great game. I don’t know why I have the award, maybe it’s the name,” admitted De Bruyne. “We didn’t play a good game, me included, but the good thing was we found a way to win.”
Martínez claimed Belgium deserved victory – he was in a company of one – despite conceding a journalist had a point when they asked whether this was his team’s worst performance in a tournament fixture. “It depends what you mean by worst game,” replied Belgium’s head coach. “Technically, yes. But worst performance? No. We won, and you don’t win by accident.” Belgium won thanks to Canada’s profligacy, chiefly, and Thibaut Courtois’ commanding goalkeeping.
Canada had 21 attempts on goal to Belgium’s nine, but only three on target. One of those was an Alphonso Davies penalty and that didn’t find its way past Courtois either. Canada have now gone a record four games without scoring at the World Cup. Their achilles heel stood between a memorable night and an undeserved defeat. “We showed that we belong here,” said the English-born Herdman. “I’m sure our fans walked away proud that we are a football nation.”
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Belgium began the World Cup in a trance. They looked dazed and pedestrian in comparison to an opponent that was a blur of energy and incisive movement in its all-white kit.
Canada had qualified for a first World Cup since 1986, and only the second in its history, with a fearless approach built on pace and a high press. They made no concessions in style against a team ranked second in the world. Their boldness should have brought tangible reward long before Batshuayi opened the scoring completely against the run of play.
But for greater conviction from the penalty spot, and more composure with the final ball or shot, Canada would have established a comfortable lead. They were awarded an early penalty when Tajon Buchanan’s shot struck the outstretched arm of Yannick Carrasco and VAR advised referee Janny Sikazwe to consult the monitor having initially ignored Canada’s appeals.
Sikazwe, the Zambian official who hit the headlines earlier this year when blowing for full time early in an Africa Cup of Nations match between Tunisia and Mali, corrected his decision. The Bayern Munich player’s attempt was weak and comfortably in range for Courtois, who parried low to his right. Davies and Jonathan David made a hash of the rebound too. Herdman said: “It was a big moment. He was carrying the weight of a nation after 36 years, longer as it would have been our first goal, and that takes a special character.”
Davies, who has pledged to donate all his World Cup earnings to charity, was visibly deflated. Canada were not. They drove forward in numbers and exploited gaps in a creaking Belgium defence where Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen showed their combined age of 68.
A claim for a second Canadian penalty was missed by the erratic match officials when Eden Hazard played a careless backpass to Buchanan, who was caught by Vertonghen. Buchanan was flagged offside. VAR did look at another penalty appeal when Richie Laryea beat Axel Witsel for pace and was caught on the calf by the chasing midfielder. This time it sided with Sikazwe’s initial decision to award a goal kick.
Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson, the second oldest outfield player in World Cup history at 39, behind Roger Milla aged 42, sliced wide after an excellent run by Davies. Alistair Johnston forced Courtois into a fine save and David selfishly opted to shoot when Laryea was totally unmarked inside the area. His effort was deflected into the arms of the Real Madrid goalkeeper.
Belgium hardly threatened until a minute before the break when Canada were undone by a searching ball out of defence from Alderweireld. The pass sent Batshuayi sprinting through a gap between the otherwise impressive Kamal Miller and Laryea and he swept a first time finish beyond Milan Borjan.
With Romelu Lukaku expected to miss two games as he recovers from a hamstring injury, Belgium need the former Chelsea forward on clinical form. They also need a vastly improved collective display, although there was an upturn following Amadou Onana’s introduction for the second half. De Bruyne and Alderweireld were seen arguing at one point. “We were playing too long when we needed to play short-short-short,” said De Bruyne. “We were not brave enough. But there are no hard feelings with Toby.”
Buchanan missed a glorious chance to equalise from Laryrea’s cross in first-half stoppage time. Canada pushed for parity throughout the second half but with David heading wide after Stephen Eustaquio had nutmegged De Bruyne and floated over an inviting delivery, and Courtois producing a flying save to deny substitute Cyle Larin, they were punished severely for lacking the ruthlessness of Batshuayi. But Canada have something to build on.