Canada was one spot kick away from making history on Wednesday. But the FIFA World Cup is nothing if not cruel — even to the most deserving — as a moment of defensive complacence, a lack of composure in front of the goal and a stingy performance from keeper Thibaut Courtois highlighted Canada's heartbreaking loss to Belgium in their tournament opener in Qatar.
Now, after that arguably unjust (but very real) defeat, Canada cannot afford to lose to Croatia, otherwise their World Cup dreams — 36 years in the making — will come to a halt, just like that.
Of course, after almost playing the world No. 2 Belgium off the pitch, the confidence in the Canadian camp should be higher than ever. They proved they can not only hang with the big boys, but they can even outplay them.
"We're not afraid of anybody," said forward Tajon Buchanan. "We’ve shown that we can compete now. We competed with Belgium and obviously we came away with zero points. But sometimes that happens."
With that first roadblock out of the way, the Canadian side now hopes they've shaken the nerves off and are ready to take the game to Croatia with hopes of earning a result that will keep their chances of qualifying for the Round of 16 alive.
"We just have to keep that same mentality [from Belgium] going into the next game and finish our chances," Buchanan said. "I have no doubt that we can do that."
Croatia, despite eking out a 0-0 draw against Morocco on Wednesday, should feel vulnerable to the speed and pressure that Canada successfully deployed against Belgium. While Croatia may not sit back and absorb pressure the same way the Belgians did, the two squads have a similar makeup, led by a string of veterans who have carried their nation through the last decade's international tournaments.
At the center of that group is mercurial midfielder Luka Modrić — the 37-year-old who has won everything there is to win at club level with Real Madrid in Spain, and who came painfully close to putting his hands on the World Cup with a cinderella run to the final in Russia in 2018.
While they are a talented bunch, Croatia's success relies heavily on Modrić's form, and they lack bite on attack without the midfielder's deep-lying playmaking abilities.
Canada, meanwhile, shouldn't be intimidated by the task of keeping Modrić in check, after taming Kevin De Bruyne — who is on par, if not better than Modrić on his best day — in their opening game of the tournament. De Bruyne was puzzled by the decision to give him the Man of the Match award in that contest, saying he didn't think he "played a good game."
Croatia will likely demand more of the ball than the Belgian team did, which ironically plays right into Canadian hands. John Herdman's side may have struggled to break down a rigid defensive block against Belgium, but they excel on the counter-attack, and can do the most damage using their speed in space.
Croatia is even more vulnerable to Canada's strengths than Belgium was, and it can be argued that De Bruyne and Co. beat Canada at their own game.
"We know that we can play at this level," said defender Alistair Johnston. "I think having that now in our back pocket after playing against Belgium in that opening game has only helped the group. The morale is unbelievably high and I’ve never seen that after a loss before."
Unfortunately, the Croats do have an extra motivating factor heading into Sunday's duel, with the national team and its fans up in arms after Herdman said Canada will "F Croatia" following the loss to Belgium.
"I mean no disrespect to the Croatian team and Croatian people, but at the end of the day it’s a mindset that Canada’s going to have if we’re going to have three points against one of the top teams in the world," he said. "And it’s the mindset that we took to Belgium. We have to."
The Croatian media did not buy this explanation, however, dragging Canada's bench boss through the mud in the days leading up to the now highly-anticipated clash.
The Canadian players back their coach though, and they don't mind the extra motivation — on either side — heading into the game.
"We don't mind if it gets built up a little bit in the media," said Johnston. "It's a little bit of fun, it gets a little more exciting around the matchup, not just in Canada and Croatia, but from other countries as well.
"You have a bit of extra interest for the match, so I think that's kind of exciting for us."
The table is set for what should be an excellent match between two nations still trying to prove themselves in Qatar. Canada has made its impression on the world, but it's time to turn the good vibes into results.
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