Canada’s World Cup hopes end with a loss to Croatia

Canada’s World Cup hopes end with a loss to Croatia

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Hacking through all the mathematical vines, removing the cross-eyed possibilities, the simplest thing was clear: Canada needed to win. A draw would keep them alive, for sure. A win meant controlling their soccer destiny in a World Cup. Imagine that.

But at Khalifa Stadium, in their second Group F match, Canada fell apart, losing 4-1 to Croatia to end any chance of reaching the Round of 16. Loss was the only thing they could not afford. That’s what they got.

Canada had talked about playing fearless, forward football and did so against Belgium, but they could afford to lose to Belgium, as distasteful as that might have been. Canada coach John Herdman’s comments about going to “Eff Croatia” got a ton of attention, but he also said the group was wide open, and boy was he right. Group Eff, basically.

Canada brought in Cyle Larin up front for Junior Hoilett, Atiba Hutchinson earned his 100th cap and the former worked straight away. In the second minute – literally, a few seconds after the first minute had passed – goalkeeper Milan Borjan sent a long ball that Larin fielded cleanly, with space. He moved the ball to Tajon Buchanan on the right wing, with space. Buchanan sent a beautiful ball across the box and Alphonso Davies chased it down, went over Josip Juranovic and headed the ball into the net. Davies had never headed in a goal before for Canada.

It was a thunderclap. Canada’s men had their first World Cup goal, from their best player, and the stadium was alive. The day before, Croatia’s Ivan Perisic, who has played club football with Davies, said “he is a miracle”. Actual.

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A few more chances went unfulfilled and Croatia began to press, and you wondered if Canada would live to regret not getting a second goal. Fearless football was replaced by sitting back – was it fitness, after pushing so hard against Belgium? – and something wasn’t quite right with midfielder Stephen Eustáquio, and Hutchinson’s 39-year-old leg began to ache. Croatia started to drive the game. In the 36th minute, Andrej Kramaric evaded Hutchinson and Alistair Johnston and found a chance, and the game was even.

Canada were off the front foot now, floundering away, and Croatia’s midfield was cutting them to shreds. Croatia got a second goal in the 44th from Marko Livaja, and Canada hung on for dear life. Their legs, their shape, their cohesion, their spirit: Croatia took it away.

Eustáquio came out at half-time; So did Larin, replaced by Jonathan Osorio and Ismaël Koné. Junior Hoilett would replace Richie Laryea, but without Eustáquio the midfield was a struggle. Hutchinson played with a bloody nose that appeared to be plugged by a tampon. He tried, but Herdman left him out there far too long.

They didn’t have enough. The best chance to equalize came on a Jonathan David shot in the 55th, saved over the bar; Davies drew a free kick just outside the box in the 61st, and it went nowhere. Canada’s spirit and legs weren’t there, and Croatia got them again in the 69th minute to make it 3-1 – Hutchinson lost a ball to start it – and goalkeeper Milan Borjan had to be big to keep it there. Kamal Miller let a ball slide between his legs in addition to the fourth goal and it was just one last poor way to end it.

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The reason this game hung so heavily was Belgium, in every way. The missed Davies penalty, the chances for Buchanan and David and Hoilett and Larin at the end. Every single one of the literally dozens of chances Canada had to score in a game they dominated, only to lose. Had Canada toppled Belgium, Croatia would have been a luxury.

It wasn’t. Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne was quoted in a profile in the Guardian as saying that Belgium couldn’t win the World Cup because “we’re too old”, and then Belgium proved it: Just before Canada-Croatia, Belgium were thrashed 2-0 by a Moroccan team who played with speed and edge, and now leads the group.

So that caught Canada off guard. One loss and you’re done; a victory, you live; draw, the mathematical hell of the group stage. In the latter two scenarios, Canada would still have to beat Morocco to feel good about anything.

However, Croatia got there first and the trap door opened and Canada fell through. The third game against Morocco on Thursday will be about pride and not much else, and then this journey will be over. There was a chance for something better, but Canada missed it – by inches, by feet, by enough. It took four years to get here, and two fights to effectively end it.

It happened quickly. They had their chance, and did Canada proud along the way. This was the end of the beginning, you hope. Davies and Buchanan and Eustáquio and David have time left, and there will be more battles to fight. But in a few days, Canada’s World Cup will be over.

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