Monday, June 13, 2011

Canada vs Panama preview: When you really must win a must-win game

Given the dearth of posts on this blog during the first week of the 2011 Gold Cup, we'll let this post, ostensibly a preview of tomorrow's vital Group C clash between Canada and Panama, serve also as a review of Canada's two earlier performances in the tournament against the USA and Guadeloupe.

First, a look back . . .

USA 2, Canada 0: What else did you expect?

Any impressions that I garner about the mood of Canada and its fans in the lead up to a big game is inevitably a gauge of the online chatter, since none of my regular social circle cares much for our national team. To me, it seemed from the posts and tweets that I read that there was a quiet confidence that Canada could achieve a result. Perhaps some had translated the excitement of Ontario fans being able to travel in numbers to an important match into optimism about the result itself. Others no doubt took the 2-2 friendly draw against Ecuador as a sign that Canada was ready. We were probably too quick to ignore that Ecuador, although likely better than its FIFA ranking (64), is not as strong as the USA and was missing its best player to boot. And the score of the match itself likely flattered Canada, with Dunfield's wonder strike and a shrewdly taken quick free kick late masking Canada's lack of chances.

The Americans are not the class of CONCACAF. That title rightly belongs to Mexico, even a Mexico side depleted by tainted chicken. But they are firmly entrenched as second best, with a bevvy of class players in midfield. Against such a lineup Canada could not afford any mistakes but that was exactly what they got when keeper Lars Hirschfeld whiffed on a Jose Altidore strike to put the team down 1-0. Despite the fact that the Americans failed to score for the rest of the first half, they appeared completely comfortable with the lead. The second half produced a more positive Canada performance that at times threatened, but just as they were working their way into the match Clint Dempsey sliced home an Altidore cross and the match, for all intents and purposes, was over.

The Americans really are just that much better.

With not much left to play for the Americans sat back a bit and Canada produced a few scoring chances. Twice substitute (and my man of the match) Ali Gerba forced Tim Howard into difficult saves. Gerba's insertion shuffled Simeon Jackson back to his wide right role, from which he appeared to be much more dangerous. It seemed Stephen Hart had discovered one way of helping his team to be a little attack minded.

There were some poor individual performances (Hirschfeld on the first goal, obviously, and Marcel de Jong, notably) but this match was evidence that it's tough to beat a team filled with much better players playing in front of their home crowd. We knew that already.

The remaining matches would and should tell us more about this Canada squad.

Canada 1, Guadeloupe 0: Opposite world?

Canada has, over the years, employed a wide variety of different ways to lose matches in CONCACAF. One of the most maddening, as a supporter, is the match where they outplay an opponent for long stretches, but due to a lack of finishing and often some dodgy officiating Canada ends up losing.

This match was just the opposite.

Canada was given a gift mere minutes into the match. Will Johnson was scythed down by a Guadeloupe defender who was subsequently shown the red card. The gift was not the decision to hand out the red; that looked harsh at first but on replay it was a crazy tackle fully deserving of the ejection. It was a thoughtless lunge by the defender against a player as normally non-threatening as Johnson, who was able to return after a few minutes and finished the match.

Jean-Luc Lambourde's moment of madness

Stephen Hart, in his approach to the match, seemed to regard the oppressive Florida heat as his main opponent, rather than Guadeloupe. He held two of his best players, Atiba Hutchinson and Simeon Jackson, out of the starting eleven. Hutchinson was left out of the team entirely with a minor injury. For the players on the pitch, Hart's instructions seemed to be to run minimally and possess the ball, regardless of whether said possession produced any chances.

Canada did dominate possession, as well they should have playing up a man for nearly the entire match. But on those occasions when Guadeloupe did mount an attack, they were the more threatening team and forced a number of good saves out of Milan Borjan, who replaced Lars Hirschfeld and may or may not now be cap-tied to Canada.

Canada's break came in the second half when Ali Gerba had his jersey pulled in the area and went to ground. Probably too easily, and likely not deserving of a penalty, but that was the decision. Dwayne De Rosario converted, the only bright spot in the match for a man who was otherwise Canada's worst performer. A number of late substitutions (bring in Friend and Jackson) suggested Hart did in fact want to press for more goals, but it seemed the team couldn't manage the energy or will to do much about it.

The immediate reaction to the match among the fans was justifiable disappointment, verging on disgust, with the apparent apathy and lack of attack of this Canada team. Such was my reaction as well

But I'm beginning to feel differently.

Hart was right to be worried about the heat. Canada had been in this same situation before, playing Guadeloupe in south Florida, and ended up falling 2-1 to the island (non-)nation in a match where Canada's legs simply weren't there in the second half. Having got the result, Hart now has the advantage of two of his most important players (Jackson and Hutchinson) being well-rested ahead of the Panama match tomorrow. These are the types of results, inspired or not, that will need to be earned in some godforsaken Central American dorp or Caribbean sauna in the near future. Lessons have been learned. We hope.

Canada vs Panama: A must-win match

The math is rather simple. Barring a highly improbable set of results, Canada needs to win this match in order to finish 3rd in the group and advance to the next round. Canada needs to win big (2 goals, or is it 3?) in order to avoid Mexico in the quarter finals. In order to survive in this tournament, Canada needs a win.

But I think in the bigger picture, which inevitably means that I'm talking about World Cup qualifying, this match takes on an even greater importance. The first stages of the WCQs, which start this fall, aren't likely to trip up Canada. But Canada will want to enter those stages with confidence. A quick exit from the Gold Cup, without producing a single credible performance, would be a crushing blow to Stephen Hart and his team, but Hart especially.

Qualifying will be full of must-win or virtual must-win matches (home dates against anybody but Mexico or the U.S.) and we must see evidence of Hart being able to pull one out to have any confidence he can do so when the stakes are so much higher. But given the performances last week, is there any reason to hope he can do so Tuesday in Kansas City?

Sure. Here are a few:
  • The stakes in this match are so much higher for Canada than they are for Panama. Panama, by virtue of their upset win over the U.S., have clinched a spot in the next round, and need only to avoid being spanked in order to avoid Mexico. Canada needs this match. Big time.
  • Canada's performance against Guadeloupe was ugly. Really ugly. But that same match did contain a few glimmers of hope. For me, the biggest was the combining and overlapping play of Mike Klukowski (who replaced de Jong) and Josh Simpson on the left side, who will be teammates next year at Manisaspor in Turkey.
  • Hart's willingness to take lineup risks. It almost seems foolish to say this because in many ways he's been rather rigid in his approach. But he rested Hutchinson (I'm sure he would have overlooked the minor knock had the opponent been tougher) and Jackson to start against Guadeloupe because he knew he would need them at their best vs Panama. He swapped out Hirschfeld for a 23-year old in his first competitive match for Canada. He played Klukowski, a guy who hasn't laced them up in a while because of a contract dispute, over de Jong, who was poor in the first match. Some are calling for him also to ice right back Nik Ledgerwood in favour of Jaime Peters, though I'm not convinced (Peters has been a shocking defender when he was played in that spot for Canada). The real test, of course, will be whether he is willing to sit the woefully underperforming De Rosario.
There is much to be concerned about but I am not ready to write this team off. Yet.

For a variety of reasons, the lineup I feel gives Canada the best chance is (4-2-3-1)

Simpson - Hutchinson - Jackson
De Guzman - Johnson
Klukowski - McKenna - Hainault - Ledgerwood
What's yours?

The match details:

LiveStrong Park, Kansas City, Kansas
June 14, 2011
7 pm et / 6 pm ct / 5 pm ct / 4 pm pt
sportsnet 1/ /

If you want to watch the match with beer and like-minded Canadian supporters, check out the viewing parties thread.


Anonymous said...

I was impressed that DeRo stuck to his coach's instructions and stayed to the right wing on Saturday evening, but I'd still be very, very surprised if he was left on the subs' bench to start this match. Hutchinson is still nursing an injury problem (yikes!) so hopefully he'll be given clearence to start come game time (and hopefully, he'll be effective). De Guzman has been inconsistent on the defensive side of things thus far in 2011. He seems to have lost a yard of quickness and turning agility in marking opposing midfielders: that not good when your stock in trade is as a defensive holding mid "destroyer" type of player.

I think, yet again, Hart opts for this formation, with Jackson coming off the bench (with the exception of DeRo for Bernier, it's the same attacking six that didn't produce a goal in the loss to Honduras in the same tourney two years ago).

--------Hutchinson-----De Guzman---------


J said...

Your comments, as always, are appreciated. And not just because you're the only one who seems to bother these days.

I find myself wondering if that midfield 5 would be at all improved by the inclusion of Pacheco. He had only a cameo against Guadeloupe but he's been a useful player in the other matches that I've seen him play. Playing in Portugal he should have no problem with the heat and humidity either.

It will be an interesting match, surely, and Hart has some interesting decisions to make.

Pompey Canuck said...

I think it would be wise to sit DeRo and try him out as an impact sub if needed.

I think that the main thing is that Canada play well. Hopefully Atiba is fit and ready to go but that looks unlikely.

J said...

It is important that Canada plays well, but I think getting a win is more important. Not a result for the sake of a result and advancing in this tournament, but because we need evidence prior to WCQ that Hart and Canada can get a result in a must-win situation.

Playing well would be fine, perhaps, if we had also played well in the first two matches.

I am also firmly of the opinion that if Canada plays to their potential against Panama, they should win. Only if they put out a sub-standard performance will they fail to get the needed result.

Anonymous said...

J., you have several good, thoughtful opinions. More people (especially Vs) should be reading and commenting in your blog. That's why I come here:)

What a bed sh*tter tonight, eh? I wasn't able to watch until the 40th minute and I haven't seen the recording yet but when I saw the chances we missed in the first half that was, as John Collins would put it, "pooooor!"