AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Despite a spirited effort from Canada in their first World Cup appearance since 1986, Belgium won the opener of Group F on Wednesday, 1-0, thanks to three big saves from Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and at least one missed penalty call that should’ve gone in Canada’s favour.
Canada had an early opportunity to take the lead after being awarded a penalty kick inside of 10 minutes, but Alphonso Davies‘ effort was blocked by Courtois. Canada has still never scored a World Cup goal. Just before the end of the first half, Belgium’s Michy Batshuayi scored off a long ball.
Here is ESPN’s Julien Laurens with reaction and analysis from Qatar.
1. A cruel but proud night for Canada
Football can be cruel sometimes — and the Canadians, in their first World Cup match since 1986, certainly experienced that against Belgium.
Unlike other teams in this tournament, they showed no nerves from the opening whistle. They played attacking football with movement, intensity and passion, pushed by the noise and the support of the 10,000 Canadians inside the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. The game plan of their manager John Herdman was spot-on: no time on the ball for Kevin De Bruyne or Eden Hazard, pressing high and utilising the width of the pitch well.
Stephen Eustaquio (what a player) and the veteran Atiba Hutchinson — at 39 years old, the oldest player in this World Cup and the only member of the squad alive for Canada‘s last World Cup appearance in 1986 — bossed the midfield. They created chances and helped generate 2.35 expected goals, or xG, for Canada against just 0.58 xG for their opponent.
Canada were the better team for most of the game, and can be proud of themselves — but they will have regrets. One defensive mistake on Toby Alderweireld‘s long ball and they conceded a goal just before the break. As Nelson Mandela used to say: “You never lose. You win or you learn.”
This Canada team should have learned a heck of a lot against Belgium.
2. Courtois, king of pens and Belgium’s saviour
Without him, Real Madrid would not have won the Champions League last season and Belgium would not have made a winning start in this World Cup.
Courtois came big again for his country, like so many times in the past, saving Davies’ penalty after 11 minutes and confirming that he is the king of pens. In 2022, he has saved five spot kicks off the nine he faced — that’s an impressive 55.55% ratio of saved penalties, and by far the highest in Europe. Since joining Real Madrid in 2018, he has faced 22 penalties and saved six — but four of those six have happened in 2022.
Courtois made another save a bit later on in the match on an Alistair Johnston shot from a tight angle, and a comfortable one in the second half on a Cyle Larin header that was one of Canada’s best chances of the night.
In what was a very poor performance by Belgium, Courtois was the only light, really. The rest was so poor — the third-placed team of the last World Cup were not a threat going forward, struggled defensively and conceded chances and dangerous situations.
It was very unconvincing and laboured from Belgium — but when you have the current best goalkeeper in the world, it makes your life much easier.
3. An off night for Hazard and De Bruyne
We wanted to see Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne take the field for different reasons.
For De Bruyne, the task was to be the conductor of this Belgian side, to take control of the game and be the creative force. Instead, he got pretty much everything wrong. He missed a free Youri Tielemans twice in the first half. Just after the hour mark, he wasted a great counter-attack with a poor ball for Batshuayi, and later blasted his shot from a good position over the bar.
It was a performance very unlike the KDB we’ve come to know at Manchester City, perhaps in large part because the supporting cast around him is not of the same level than the one he has at his club but still: we expect more from him. It is his role to carry this team.
For Hazard, the aim was to show that, even short of match fitness, he could still have an impact on a game like this one. Alas, despite a couple of good touches and turns, the display from the captain was not good enough.
He came off after 60 minutes with no chances created, only 76% of accurate passes and only two successful dribbles. He was fouled four times though, which showed that there is still some life in him, but it is not enough right now.
Manager Roberto Martinez has been very loyal with the 31-year-old who rarely plays at Real Madrid, keeping him in the team at all cost. It is unlikely he will drop him for the Morocco game on Sunday but Hazard, like De Bruyne, will be under pressure to do better than against Canada.
Belgium: Courtois 8, Dendoncker 5, Alderweireld 6, Vertonghen 4 ,Castagne 5, Tielemans 3, Witsel 4, Carrasco 4, De Bruyne 4, Hazard 4, Batshuayi 6
Subs: Onana 5, Openda 4, Meunier 4, Trossard 4
Canada: Borjan 5, Johnston 6, Vitoria 5, Miller 6, Hoilett 6, Larin 5, Hutchinson 7, Eustaquio 7, Laryea 6, , Buchanan 6, Millar 5, Davies 6, David 5
Subs: Osorio 5, Kone 5, Adekugbe 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Stephen Eustaquio, Canada
The Porto midfielder bossed this game until his replacement after 81 minutes. The 25-year-old Eustaquio was everywhere, recovering the ball nine times and creating two chances for his team while playing with intensity, intelligence and flair. This has been his breakthrough season in Portugal and against Belgium he showed again how talented he is.
WORST: Youri Tielemans, Belgium
It was a tough night for the Leicester midfielder, so much that his manager decided to take him off at half-time to bring on Amadou Onana. Tielemans simply had no impact on the game, finding himself positioned too high and only making 13 passes in 45 minutes, hardly any forward. It was a really disappointing performance.
Highlights and notable moments
Canada came out from the first whistle with intensity and pace, and they put the pressure on Belgium immediately. It seemed Canada would come out in front soon when a handball was called in the 10th minute.
Alphonso Davies, the Bayern Munich full-back and leading player for Canada, stepped up to the spot, but Belgian goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois continued his recent run of good form on saving penalties, and he denied Davies.
Pero ¿qué te pasó @AlphonsoDavies?
— Telemundo Deportes (@TelemundoSports) November 23, 2022
Canada had been dominating the first half and were the far more dangerous side, even beyond their missed penalty chance. Through the 43rd minute, Canada’s expected goals (xG) was 1.81 while Belgium’s was only 0.15.
But soccer or football — whatever you want to call it — is a funny game: a team can be the “worse” side but still be the side winning. With a long lofted ball over the top in the 44th minute, Michy Batshuayi put Belgium ahead 1-0 against the run of play.
BATSHUAYI PUTS BELGIUM OUT IN FRONT 🇧🇪 pic.twitter.com/s6ED21MAYH
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 23, 2022
After the match: What the managers said
Canada coach John Herdman on the result: “Proud of the performance, but you need to take three points from your first game. We had the opportunity tonight to be top of the group — that was the mission — and we missed it. But I’m proud of the performance. As I’ve said, these lads put a shift in and showed they can live on this stage. I think they made the fans proud and it made them feel like they belong here, and that was important for us.”
Herdman on what he told his players after the match: “I just showed them the stats. I showed them they belong here. I told them they belong here, and we’re gonna go and F Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets. That’s our next mission now.” (Editor’s note: Canada is in Group F for the World Cup.)
Belgium coach Roberto Martinez on the win: “Canada deserved to be better than us in the way they played. I think the result reflects the things that we had to do and the way we defended for each other and took our chance. It’s a win and we need to play better and to grow. We’ve been here five days, we have to grow with these games. Many top teams are losing games.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Canada is the first team since 1978 to attempt 20-plus shots (22) and a penalty kick and not score at a World Cup game.
Canada’s 2.59 expected goals (xG) against Belgium made them the team with the highest expected goals total to be shut out this tournament.
Canada is the first team to attempt at least 14 shots in the first half but not score a goal and trail at halftime in a World Cup match since 1986.
Belgium’s starting XI against Canada had an average age of 30 years and 181 days. That is the oldest starting XI in a 2022 World Cup game yet, and the oldest for Belgium since June 20, 1998, against Mexico.
Belgium: Group F resumes on Sunday, Nov. 27, when Belgium will face Morocco at 8 a.m. ET. Then, Belgium face Croatia on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 10 a.m. ET.
Canada: Group F resumes on Sunday, Nov. 27, when Canada will face Croatia at 11 a.m. ET. Then, Canada face Morocco on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 10 a.m. ET.