Canada learns ‘small margins’ separate World Cup elite from the rest


AL RAYYAN, Qatar – The FIFA World Cup is one of the biggest spectacles on earth because of its history, romance and collection of world-class teams vying for the ultimate prize.

Those elite players may not always be a well-oiled machine, as we’ve seen with Belgium in the first two games. In other cases, teams persevere despite early injury concerns, like France.

No matter the team, though, no matter the collection of players, there’s always one commonality.

It’s all in the details.

The Canadian men’s national team learned that the hard way on Sunday. Alphonso Davies struck after 67 seconds, scoring the first-ever goal for the men’s national team at a World Cup.

Croatia eventually scored four unanswered goals to win 4-1, eliminating Canada from round-of-16 consideration with a game to spare.

It’s the first time Canada has conceded four goals in a match since November 2019 against the United States in Concacaf Nations League.

The score that night was 4-1.

In fact, Canada hadn’t conceded more than two goals in 35 consecutive games before Sunday.

Perhaps the scoreline on this occasion was harsh considering how the first 30 minutes transpired.

Tajon Buchanan and Cyle Larin combined beautifully down Croatia’s left flank, a potential area of weakness for the 2018 finalists, as Davies darted towards the back post and sent Canadians onto cloud nine. Buchanan and Davies continually torched Croatia in transition.

Croatia began to pick apart Canada’s midfield by the 30th minute, with the forwards executing runs off the shoulders of defenders.

Andrej Kramaric was flagged for offside before that, while Marko Livaja had a couple decent looks at goal.

Then, with Tajon Buchanan slacking in his defensive duties – leaving Alistair Johnston exposed on the right side – Croatia began to target that side.

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Croatia executed give-and-go’s between those lurking forwards. Eventually, Ivan Perisic received a pass which attracted Alistair Johnston. Kramaric slipped in behind, past Atiba Hutchinson and had an open shot to equalize.

Then the transitional opportunities started to pile up for Croatia. Hutchinson was burned again, Kamal Miller tried to intervene with a sliding tackle on Josip Juranovic, who had cut inside from right-back. Steven Vitoria pushed up, and all three bodies came together to free up Livaja for the winning goal.

Hutchinson, who earned his 100th cap, logged 73 minutes despite his struggles off the ball.

To Hutchinson’s credit, he was smooth with the ball. He routinely relieved pressure on Canada’s defence when it built from the back whenever he asked to play through Croatia’s high press.

“I thought he was just next level in the first half [with] some of his touches,” said Canada coach John Herdman in his post-match press conference. “He’s living up to what he said, to play fiercely. I was really, really happy with his performance. He was a real leader tonight.”

Off the ball, though, it was apparent that his 39-year-old legs couldn’t handle the pace of play from Croatia and he could’ve been withdrawn at halftime.

“I asked him [if he wanted to come off] around the 55th [minute],” Herdman said. “That was the plan to bring him out at that time and I asked him how he was and he said he wanted to keep going.

“When you bring in young players like [Ismael] Kone, you need that leadership in there.”

A strange decision, to say the least.

But the defensive mishaps and the missed assignments around the box are all examples of not following the little details that separate the elite from the rest at this tournament.

“We’ve really got to make sure we take care of the little details,” Herdman lamented. “Tracking men, turning with the man, there’s plenty of things that we needed to clean up.”

With how Croatia slowly grabbed hold of the game, something could’ve been done sooner to combat it.

“In that first half there was a moment where Modric and Brozovic just started to pick apart our midfield two and we needed a tactical shift a little bit quicker and maybe even the subs a bit quicker as well.”

Stephen Eustaquio was withdrawn at halftime, though Herdman admits that he was feeling some discomfort in his hamstring in the 35th minute and wondered if he could’ve hauled off Eustaquio at that time.

“When you talked about turning points, I think [Eustaquio’s injury] was a big moment for us,” Herdman said.

As Croatia’s goals piled up, the Canadian game-breakers’ influence waned. Considering how loaded the central channels were thanks to Croatia’s midfield superiority, it was curious that both were cutting inside into those congested areas.

At least one staying high and wide, where the Croatian full-backs were often on their own, could’ve opened up space to hit a cutback or cross. Instead, there were a few too many touches in the half spaces in the final hour.

Even if Thursday’s game against Morocco is a dead rubber from a Canadian perspective, the least Canada can do now is prove that Sunday was just “one of those days” every team experiences in any sport.

With the 2026 World Cup only three and a half years away, it’s never too soon to stick to the little details that got Canada to this stage in the first place.

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