At least on the pitch, this has frequently been a World Cup at which royalty doesn’t matter. Argentina and Germany lost their opening matches. Italy saved money on flights. France have been impressive, but entering Sunday’s third match, their fellow 2018 semi-finalists Belgium, England and Croatia had experienced some humbling results.
Croatia – with a 37-year-old former Ballon d’Or winner in their midfield – were verbally challenged by Canada coach John Herdman after his side’s opening-match loss to former Group F favourites Belgium. Those words were critiqued to no end by the North American media, not to mention Croatia’s Ivan Perišić. But there’s little more vindicating than an early goal – especially at a tournament devoid of them.
It’s just that Canada’s early goal left 88 minutes for Croatia to vindicate right back at them.
After managing 22 shots against Belgium with nothing to show for it, Canada needed a World Cup goal perhaps more than they need a Canadian Stanley Cup winner. Ninety promising minutes without the former makes 30 years without the latter somehow seem more bearable, and then it came with Canada’s first goal at any World Cup also being the fastest goal in this World Cup.
It was perhaps fitting their first came from Alphonso Davies in terms of narrative, but it briefly felt more fitting in terms of tactics that it started with Cyle Larin. The Brugge forward was brought into the team after Canada struggled to finish against Belgium, and it was Larin who brought the ball down from goalkeeper Milan Borjan’s long ball and found Tajon Buchanan on the right, who crossed it into the box for Davies’ second-minute bullet header.
Herdman’s side kept at it and looked to be the better team for about 20 minutes. Then, footballing royalty started dictating the midfield:
It seemed that Croatia equalised in the 26th minute, but Andrej Kramarić’s finish was disallowed for offside. It didn’t matter. They kept at it with Luka Modrić at the center of it, finding Marko Livaja for a fine chance in the 35th, and the breakthrough came a minute later from Kramarić on an assist from Perišić against a Canadian defence that had lost the plot for good.
The lead came just before the half with the ball finding an unmarked Livaja at the top of the box. So for the second straight game, Canada conceded in the 44th minute and came out of the tunnel with a big task – this time facing elimination.
The second half started strong with Jonathan Osorio coming on for Larin and narrowly missing wide in the 49th. Then strong became back and forth with one side entirely unable to keep defensive organisation. Canada needed a save from Borjan in the 54th minute as Modrić found Kramarić, who probably should have made it 3-1. And then he did in the 70th minute on another Perišić assist and another terrible defensive effort from the Canadians.
There is talent in this Canada team, but talent can be overrun by a midfield capable of exposing recurrent defensive flaws and inexcusable shape and marking. Modrić, Perišić and Mateo Kovačić did their talking by pinging passes and creating a combined nine of Croatia’s first 10 chances. Kovačić led the way with four and completed 21 of 22 final-third passes, including a perfect mark for the first hour:
So Canada have their goal, but if they get another at the tournament it won’t mean anything as they’ve now followed hosts Qatar on their way out of knockout-stage contention. Group F is down to three with Croatia (71.3% chance of progressing) and Morocco on four points and Belgium on three ahead of Thursday’s group headliner. Croatia vs. Belgium. We are getting to the stage of the tournament where royalty knows a thing or two about staying alive.