Eustaquio turns heads after splendid Champions League debut

Eustaquio turns heads after splendid Champions League debut

There may not be another player more integral to the Canadian men’s national team’s recent success than Stephen Eustaquio.

Only Alistair Johnston (1,374) and Jonathan David (1,341) have logged more minutes than Eustaquio (1,330) during World Cup qualifying, and he might’ve been No. 1 if it wasn’t for his two-game absence in the January window.

But even though Eustaquio’s been a pillar for the national team for the past 18 months, that wasn’t the case at Porto with a plethora of midfielders to compete with upon his arrival from Pacos de Ferreira in January.

Then, Fabio Vieira was sold to Arsenal in mid-June. Vitinha followed suit nearly two weeks later and departed for Paris Saint-Germain. That, combined with Sergio Oliveira’s exit, opened up plenty of space in Porto’s midfield.

A switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 bumped Eustaquio further ahead in the pecking order. He received at least 25-30 minutes in every match to begin the season, and capitalized well, until a 3-1 loss to Rio Ave on Aug. 28.

Eventually, Marko Grujic’s injury and fixture congestion due to UEFA Champions League commitments led to Eustaquio’s first start of the season against Gil Vicente on Sept. 3.

Boy, did he capitalize.

Eustaquio set up both goals in the 2-0 victory, albeit in a 4-4-2 due to Grujic’s absence. Interestingly, though, the 25-year-old was constantly foraying deep into the final third as the second assist showcased.

Coach Sergio Conceicao must’ve enjoyed what he saw because Eustaquio stayed in the lineup for Porto’s Champions League opener vs. Atlético Madrid. Considering the circumstances – facing Atlético away in his first appearance in the competition, no less – the Canadian might’ve been Porto’s best player in the 2-1 defeat.

With the stakes high, Eustaquio remained influential in the final third and could’ve bagged his first Champions League goal if not for a narrow miss.

But as he often does, Eustaquio (No. 46) remained calm on the ball and helped orchestrate some lovely sequences for the visitors, even while harried by Atlético’s high pressing.

The defensive effort was also resilient and effective.

The mid-week performance was enough for Eustaquio to register a third straight start on Saturday as Porto shut out Chaves 3-0 and – you guessed it – he was repeatedly involved around the opposition box.

For instance, watch how Eustaquio follows his pass and inches closer towards the penalty area in the following sequence.

In the long run, this will benefit Eustaquio with Canada coach John Herdman preferring a double pivot in midfield in recent games. The more comfortable the midfielder is in more advanced positions, the more effective the pivot will be if both players are competent around the box.

As for his current club situation, Eustaquio might be on the outside looking in once Grujic is fit. The Serbian was available on the bench in Saturday’s win, so clearly a return is imminent.

However, Eustaquio has definitely pushed himself into the starting conversation for the foreseeable future thanks to his excellent week.


• It wasn’t a fun day at the office for Bayern Munich on Saturday after settling for a 2-2 draw with Stuttgart at home. On the bright side for Alphonso Davies, he picked up his first assist of the season on Bayern’s opener.

Davies was one of the only standouts for the Bavarians in an otherwise tepid performance. He was a constant menace for Stuttgart whenever he’d cut inside on the dribble – a recurring theme in Bayern games this season.

The 21-year-old has flown under the radar defensively, but he’s been as sturdy at the back as any Bayern defender. However, Davies received his first proper challenge of the year in Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Inter in the form of Denzel Dumfries. The Dutch international is equally dynamic, yet he was nullified for the majority of the 90 minutes.

It’s taken a couple years for Davies to gain more defensive awareness and anticipation but it’s clearly reaching a crescendo now.

• Two weeks ago, I wrote about Jonathan David’s struggles as a lone No. 9 in games when Lille dictate possession. This was debunked last week after David completed a brace in a 3-1 win against Montpellier, albeit as part of a fluid front four while playing quick, one-touch football.

This was the approach in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Marseille, too. David (No. 9 below) was utilized as an outlet for long passes, dropping deep to receive the ball, opening gaps between the opposing defence and fulfilling these tasks well.

Eventually, Marseille caught on to Lille’s strategy and pressured David before he received the ball to force a few turnovers.

To be fair to David and Lille, there were some lovely sequences created because of his hold-up play. He latched onto one decent chance on goal and executed two runs into space but didn’t receive the ensuing passes.

Perhaps David’s effectiveness a lone No. 9 isn’t as black or white as we thought. He’s a quality player so he’ll have his moments, provided Lille play with enough verticality and fluidity to provide enough scoring opportunities.

• One week removed from his first goal of the season, Ike Ugbo is back in purgatory. He was withdrawn at halftime in Troyes’ 1-0 loss to Lens on Friday after a lacklustre showing from the left wing, his second straight appearance as a winger.

It’s a curious decision from coach Bruno Irles, to say the least. Ugbo thrives as a centre forward where he can stretch defences and put himself in position to score. He can’t do that from these areas of the pitch.

• Luca Koleosho is continuing his recovery from a sprained ankle having not played for Espanyol since mid-August. That puts any potential hopes of a September call-up in doubt.

• It’s a miracle: Cyle Larin started a match for Club Brugge and scored. Talk about ideal timing.

Larin spent the first 40 minutes shifting to the right side of the pitch as part of a strike duo with new signing Roman Yaremchuk to drop deep to execute give-and-gos. Afterwards, he switched sides to occupy a similar role on the left – where the 27-year-old enjoyed greatly at Besiktas in 2020-21 – and looked far more dangerous.

It’s not a coincidence that Larin scored by arriving late into the box from the left side. The goal must’ve raised his spirits because he had a few excellent chances shortly thereafter.

More proof that when a player is deployed properly, he can produce a few standout moments and capitalize on at least one of them.

• Still no Tajon Buchanan for Club Brugge, who is out with a quad injury sustained minutes before the Belgian Super Cup kicked off in July. He’s expected to take part in Canada’s September camp, even if he doesn’t play for Brugge before travelling.

• One name on the fringes of the national team is Liam Fraser. Samuel Piette’s excellent form for CF Montreal could leave the Deinze midfielder on the outside looking in for the World Cup.

With some uncertainty regarding which midfielders will be fit for November, Fraser could make a late push. The weekend defeat to Molenbeek further underlined his superb distribution, particularly under pressure.

But it’s defending that’s been Fraser’s Achilles’ heel. Luckily, he appears to be gaining better anticipation and isn’t as easily overrun in one-on-one defensive duels. That’s a very encouraging development.

• There was a Canadian vs. Canadian clash in Portugal when Eustaquio’s Porto faced Steven Vitoria and Chaves on Saturday. Vitoria went the full 90 in the 3-0 defeat but looked solid when called upon. He intervened at some crucial moments and completed an astonishing 95 per cent of his 41 attempted passes.

Not bad for an away date at Porto.

• There was a scare involving Atiba Hutchinson over the weekend. Initially, reports out of Turkey stated that Besiktas was going to freeze his contract to make room for Nathan Redmond after the club reached its foreigner limit.

However, coach Valerien Ismael opted for Tyler Boyd as the odd man out and retained Hutchinson, who is supposedly two weeks away from a return to the pitch following his injury.

• Sam Adekugbe produced another solid performance for Hatayspor in their 1-0 loss to Konyaspor. Yet again, though, his club’s lack of killer instinct means he has little opportunity to produce in the final third. At least he’s remaining impenetrable at the back.

• Matches in England and Scotland were postponed in honour of Queen Elizabeth II, so the likes of Junior Hoilett, Theo Corbeanu, Daniel Jebbison, Aribim Pepple, Theo Bair, Victor Loturi and Ben Paton will be back in action as early as this Tuesday.

• David Wotherspoon will play a couple matches over the international break with St. Johnstone ahead of the team’s league match against Dundee United on Oct. 1. From there, Wotherspoon will have eight or nine games to gain fitness ahead of the World Cup. The 32-year-old was capped eight times for Canada in 2021 before he tore his ACL in November.

• Whether he’s a substitute or a starter, Liam Millar keeps producing. He was initially credited with an assist in Basel’s Europa Conference League victory over Pyunik on Thursday, although the deflection might’ve helped.

Millar should’ve repeated the feat in Sunday’s win over Grasshoppers but he was a second too late to pull the trigger.

• Milan Borjan started in Red Star’s 1-0 loss to Monaco in Europa League action on Thursday, conceding via a 74th-minute penalty and wasn’t really tested otherwise. Borjan also finished the 90 in a 2-1 victory over Novi Pazar in the Serbian SuperLiga on Sunday.

• About 11 days before the September window begins for Canada, the federation was dealt a blow. Stefan Mitrovic, one of the coveted dual nationals, is set to be called up by Serbia for UEFA Nations League dates vs. Sweden and Norway this month. It comes after a wonderful start at Red Star Belgrade where he’s recorded three goals and two assists in 560 minutes across all competitions.

The decision stings from a Canadian perspective because there was an opportunity to call him up. A source within Canada Soccer told Sportsnet that Mitrovic was in the process of filing a one-time switch of nationality to play for Canada in recent weeks. This was mandatory having represented Serbia at youth level. Serbia’s federation then improved its offer for Mitrovic to stick with the program and he ultimately chose the Serbians.

Mitrovic was also set to join up with the Canada squad in January before resuming World Cup qualifying. The camp and scheduled friendly vs. Guatemala were eventually cancelled due to a rise in COVID-19 cases worldwide.

• Just like Larin, Scott Kennedy has received a significant increase in minutes at the perfect time. He earned his first start of the season for Jahn Regensburg last week in a 0-0 draw with Holstein Kiel. More importantly, he started as a left-sided centre-back in a 3-4-3.

Considering Canada relies on a back three in possession, Kennedy seeing regular playing time in that role will behoove the national team and the player. Plus, he was solid enough in Saturday’s game vs. Paderborn.

• Kennedy’s competition, Derek Cornelius, started again for Panetolikos in the Greek Super League as they beat OFI 2-1. The former starting matches isn’t good news for Cornelius, though, especially when he’s still running hot-or-cold in one-on-one defensive duels.

On the bright side, Cornelius’ distribution under pressure keeps improving.

• We saw vintage Maxime Crepeau for LAFC on Saturday, even as they coughed up a 1-0 lead to FC Dallas because L.A. would’ve lost the game sooner if not for some top-drawer saves.

Then again, Crepeau has always struggled with crosses and Jesús Ferreira exploited that weakness.

• Minnesota United may have lost 1-0 but they can’t blame Dayne St. Clair for it. He only faced two shots on target and Dairon Asprilla’s bullet header was one of them. There wasn’t much else he could’ve done.

• Sam Adekugbe’s rise and Richie Laryea’s ability to play left-back makes it tough for Raheem Edwards to crack the 26-man World Cup squad despite his stellar form with the L.A. Galaxy this season.

That being said, if Davies is playing up front and Adekugbe is the only out-and-out left-back, the Galaxy defender is an ideal backup. He routinely progresses the ball in the final third – Edwards is in the 92nd percentile among MLS full-backs this season in shot-creating actions, per – and works hard off the ball as evidenced by his statistical radar below. That’s what any coach would want from a wingback.

Raheem Edwards’ statistical radar with the Galaxy this season.

• Charles-Andreas Brym logged 78 minutes in FC Eindhoven’s 1-1 draw with Almere in the Eerste Divisie on Monday. Brym seems to have re-adjusted to life in Eindhoven quickly, although there’s absolutely no chance he’d receive this time and space to shoot if he was still with Sparta Rotterdam in the Dutch top flight:

• No Diyaeddine Abzi for Pau in Ligue 2 this past weekend after he was a late substitute in the previous match on Sept. 5. Abzi’s minutes have slowly dwindled since his debut nearly two months ago which has to be concerning at this stage.

• Centre-back Justin Smith was in Quevilly-Rouen’s matchday squad for the first time in more than a month. He was an unused substitute in a 1-0 loss to Annecy and has yet to play for the club since joining on loan from Nice.

• Last December, I highlighted Canadian youngster Matt Passacquale. Having left Heerenveen’s youth setup, he’s since joined fellow Dutch outfit Emmen after its promotion to the Eredivisie. Passacquale, 18, plays for the club’s U-21 side and hasn’t missed a beat despite several months without competitive minutes.

You can watch some of his recent action in the video below. He’s No. 7 in green.

• The UEFA Youth League is in full swing and there’s a Canadian player to monitor over the next few weeks. Oumar Diallo, a 17-year-old forward, signed with Inter a few weeks ago and is supposedly in contention to play in the Youth League.

Diallo was snapped up from Serie D club Cannara after arriving in Italy in January. He made six appearances and debuted shortly before his 17th birthday. Even at a young age, the teenager’s awareness and vision are quite impressive. Plus, he possesses strong technical ability and clearly handles himself physically. Pay attention to No. 11 below.

It’ll be intriguing to see how he develops in a structured youth setup like Inter’s with state-of-the-art facilities and coaching after about 300 minutes playing in the fourth-tier of the Italian pyramid.

About the author: Peter Galindo is one of Canada’s leading soccer journalists, having covered the sport for several outlets, including Sportsnet, MLS and Bleacher Report. He also co-hosts the Northern Fútbol Podcast, which focuses on all things Canadian soccer. You can subscribe to the show on Apple, Spotify or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

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