3 key questions ahead of Canada's World Cup opener vs. Belgium
The wait is over.
Despite facing Group F's most illustrious member in the opening match - and the obvious leap in quality that entails for John Herdman's side coming out of CONCACAF - the Canadians are confident they can do more than just cause problems for the aging Red Devils; they're aiming for an enormous upset - full stop.
What exactly will Canada need to do to accomplish that? Below, we examine three key questions heading into the contest.
Can Davies play 90 minutes?
Amid lingering fitness concerns for several players over the last week - including goalkeeper Milan Borjan, captain Atiba Hutchinson, and midfield conductor Stephen Eustaquio - the status of Alphonso Davies has, obviously, been the glaring question mark. The rapid 22-year-old insists he's "ready to start" at the Al-Rayyan Stadium despite his late arrival in Qatar; Davies spent extra time recovering at Bayern Munich after suffering a hamstring injury two weeks ago that had the entire nation holding its collective breath.
Herdman, too, seemed to allay concerns Tuesday when he told reporters that all of his players - Davies included - "came through" late fitness tests ahead of the match. "We can field our strongest team," he said with a wry smile. How much of that is posturing in a bid to keep Belgium counterpart Roberto Martinez honest? After all, every edge counts. Psychological warfare can't be discounted.
If Herdman opts not to risk Davies from the opening whistle, Canada could use a 4-4-2 setup similar to the one it deployed in its final pre-tournament friendly against Japan. Davies missed that match, opening the door for versatile veteran Junior Hoilett to start on the left side of midfield. Playing strikers Jonathan David and Cyle Larin together would help occupy Belgium's three center-backs, too, which could create more openings out wide for either Hoilett or Tajon Buchanan to exploit.
Further back, Alistair Johnston is more than comfortable sliding over to a more traditional right-back role, where he plays frequently for club side CF Montreal.
"We've been able to perform when Alphonso has been out of the team,” Herdman said last week. "It's not something I'm losing sleep over."
He's right. The most impressive part of Canada's successful qualifying campaign was its ability to withstand Davies' absence during the critical January window: Les Rouges claimed consecutive 2-0 wins over Honduras - in San Pedro Sula - the United States, and El Salvador during that span.
Even if the undisputed star and talisman of the team isn't on the pitch from the opening whistle against Belgium, Canada won't cower.
Which system will Herdman use?
With or without Davies, Herdman's tactical approach will be fascinating.
Canada has flourished in an aggressive 3-4-3 setup under the English bench boss, a system in which the speed and dribbling prowess of players like Davies and Buchanan on the flanks - with Sam Adekugbe bursting up and down the left side in support - have been the standout features.
Though Belgium is the most talented team Canada will play in the group stage, the Red Devils' greatest weakness syncs with Canada's aforementioned strength. Thomas Meunier and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, expected to start as wing-backs in Martinez's adored 3-4-2-1 formation, are better going forward than they are in their own end, while Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld - who have a combined age of 68 - lack mobility at this stage of their careers. Canada will have spaces to exploit, either on the counterattack or if the game opens up.
Buchanan, in particular, is critical. Playing for Club Brugge in Belgium, he's developed the defensive side of his game, allowing him to play more consistently as a wing-back and give Canada added attacking thrust from a nominally defensive starting position.
"Playing in a much deeper role has helped a lot," he told media outlets, including theScore, during a conference call ahead of the tournament in Qatar. "I'm very comfortable defensively now ... and, obviously, my quality shows when I'm higher up the field."
If Canada can consistently get Buchanan into advantageous positions, ideally isolated against backtracking defenders, scoring opportunities will follow.
"If we stay focused and want to do something special, it's in our hands to do that," the 23-year-old said. That applies both to Wednesday's opening match, and the tournament as a whole.
How to slow down De Bruyne?
This, ultimately, is the only question that truly matters in any conversation involving Belgium. While the influence of other members of the nation's lauded "Golden Generation" continues to diminish - with captain Eden Hazard and injured striker Romelu Lukaku the chief casualties - Kevin De Bruyne arrives in Qatar at his best. An irrepressible creative force, the 31-year-old can take over matches on his own with his passing and playmaking ability.
Slowing him down, then, is paramount. But how?
Canada has demonstrated tactical flexibility throughout Herdman's tenure - midfielder Jonathan Osorio told theScore before the tournament that adaptability is one of the team's greatest strengths. Could a surprise switch to three central midfielders be the answer here?
Such a switch would arguably create more conundrums than it solves; where does Davies play in a 3-5-2 system, for instance? But an additional body in the middle could help Canada wrest control of a crucial area of the pitch. With De Bruyne, Youri Tielemans, and Axel Witsel all expected to start Wednesday, that is, by a wide margin, Belgium's greatest strength and advantage over the North American outfit.
Herdman, a studious manager, leaves no stone unturned in tailoring his tactics to a specific opponent. He may decide that the added bite and defensive awareness of Samuel Piette could help Canada not only cut off supply lines to De Bruyne but also eliminate passing lanes the Belgian wizard so often finds. Osorio, Mark-Anthony Kaye, or even blossoming youngster Ismael Kone could also be deployed to help pack the middle.
Containing De Bruyne entirely is impossible. He's too good and too intelligent not to find spaces where he can receive the ball at some point, even if multiple players are marking him. Still, the first step Canada must take to nullify his impact is to force the Manchester City superstar to drop deep to get on the ball. Having Piette in the team, for instance, would allow another midfielder to press up tight on De Bruyne, forcing him to retreat into his own half to gain possession without leaving a gaping hole in midfield for another Belgian player to exploit.