FIFA World Cup Group F Preview: Canada  back on biggest stage, but how will they match up?

FIFA World Cup Group F Preview: Canada back on biggest stage, but how will they match up?

In 1986, an upstart Canadian men’s team completely devoid of star power qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time, and more than held its own in its opening match —a 1-0 defeat to European champions France. But that loss sapped the life out of the Canadians, as they subsequently limped to a pair of 2-0 losses to Hungary and the Soviet Union, bowing out of the tournament in Mexico without scoring a goal.

Thirty-six years later, Canada is back at the World Cup for the first time thanks to an amazing generation of talent, most notably Alphonso Davies, and a coach in John Herdman who has shown a genuine knack for getting the most out of his players. But will that be enough to help the Canadians score their first goal and earn their first win at the World Cup in Qatar? Can they go toe-to-toe in Group F with European powerhouses Belgium and Croatia, and African heavyweight Morocco? 

GROUP F SCHEDULE

Nov. 23: Morocco vs. Croatia (5 a.m. ET) 
Nov. 23: Belgium vs. Canada (2 p.m. ET) 
Nov. 27: Belgium vs. Morocco (8 a.m. ET) 
Nov. 27: Croatia vs. Canada (11 a.m. ET) 
Dec. 1: Canada vs. Morocco (10 a.m. ET) 
Dec. 1: Croatia vs. Belgium (10 a.m. ET) 

THE TEAMS

Kevin De Bruyne, the face of Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’. (Frank Augstein/AP)

BELGIUM
FIFA world ranking: 2 
Top scorer in qualifying: Romelu Lukaku (5 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +960 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: -148 

Previous World Cup appearances: 13 
Best showing: Semifinals (1986 and 2018)
2018 World Cup: Third place  

Manager: Roberto Martinez 
Probable formation: 3-4-2-1 
Probable starting XI: Thibaut Courtois (Real Madrid) — Zeno Debast (Anderlecht), Toby Alderweireld (Antwerp), Jan Vertonghen (Anderlecht) — Thomas Meunier (Borussia Dortmund), Axel Witsel (Atlético Madrid), Youri Tielemans (Leicester City), Yannick Carrasco (Atlético Madrid) — Eden Hazard (Real Madrid), Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Romelu Lukaku (Inter Milan).

The Big Question:  Can Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ of players come together and finally win the World Cup after reaching the semifinals four years ago?

The Pulse: Belgium enters the World Cup with momentum after going unbeaten through the qualifiers with six wins in eight games and out-scoring the opposition 25-6. The core of the team that reached the semifinals four years ago remains in place, and coach Roberto Martinez can call upon players who rank amongst the best in the world in their positions, including goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. 

Martinez prefers a 3-4-2-1 formation but has been known to switch to 3-4-3 at times over the years. Whatever setup he uses, Eden Hazard and De Bruyne are expected to serve as the two chief creators behind frontman Romelu Lukaku (if he’s healthy) on a team that loves to play on the front foot. Defenders Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen are both the wrong side of 30, so the back line struggles against opposing attackers with a touch of pace. Still, this a talent-laden Belgian side that has to be considered among the favourites to win the World Cup.

The X-factor: Forward Romelu Lukaku is carrying a hamstring injury and has seen limited action for Inter Milan this season, while midfielder Eden Hazard has barely featured for Real Madrid during the current La Liga campaign. These are two players who are integral to Belgium’s electric attack, so it’ll be interesting to see just how effective they’ll be in Qatar, and whether other players will have to step up in their places.

Belgium is also a somewhat aging side, and relies far too much on De Bruyne, 31, to light the creative spark. It’s difficult to envision Roberto Martinez turning to his crop of young players to lead the charge in Qatar. So, the question will be whether the veterans can come together and collectively perform at their top levels in order to put Belgium over the top and finally deliver the country a World Cup title.

The Breakout Candidate: Charles De Ketelaere was a standout at Club Brugge in his native Belgium, helping his hometown club win three consecutive league titles from 2020 to 2022. Italian giants AC Milan were so impressed with the attacking midfielder that they signed him away this past summer.

Now the 21-year-old is ready to make a name for himself on the international stage after debuting for his country in 2020 and scoring his debut goal in the UEFA Nations League. At six-foot-four, De Ketelaere cuts a somewhat imposing figure but he’s an elegant player who combines physicality with a deft touch on the ball.


 

The world is about to witness Canada’s next breakout star: Tajon Buchanan. (Alex D’Addese/Sportsnet)

CANADA
FIFA world ranking: 41 
Top scorer in qualifying: Cyle Larin (13 goals) 
Odds to win the World Cup: +12,300  (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +618 

Previous World Cup appearances: 1 
Best showing: Group stage (1986 )
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify  

Manager: John Herdman 
Probable formation: 4-3-3 
Probable starting XI: Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) — Sam Adekugbe (Hatayspor), Steven Vitoria (Chaves), Kamal Miller (CF Montreal), Alistair Johnston (CF Montreal) — Atiba Hutchinson (Beşiktaş), Stephen Eustáquio (FC Porto), Jonathan Osorio (Toronto FC) — Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Lille), Cyle Larin (Club Brugge).

The Big Question: How fit and healthy will Alphonso Davies be going into the World Cup after the Canadian suffered a hamstring injury with Bayern Munich earlier this month?

The Pulse: With a group of exciting attacking players, highlighted by Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, this Canadian team likes to play on the front foot and go after it, rather than respond to what their opponents are doing. It’s also a tactically nimble side, as John Herdman has deployed this Canadian team in a number of formations, most notably a 4-3-3, 3-5-4 and 3-4-3. If nothing else, Canada is going to be one wildly entertaining and fun team to watch in Qatar.

There’s plenty of strength in central midfield where FC Porto’s Stephen Eustáquio pulls the strings and captain Atiba Hutchinson provides leadership, and plenty of speed at the fullback and wingback positions in the form of Tajon Buchanan and Sam Adekugbe. But central defence is an area of genuine concern for Canada. The injury absences of Scott Kennedy (shoulder) and Doneil Henry (calf) leaves a Canadian side already lacking in quality depth at the centre back position even more depleted and susceptible to being opened up by Belgium and Croatia in their first two games of the group stage.

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The X-factor: John Herdman has worked his wonders on this Canadian team since taking over the coaching reins in early 2018. He has transformed Canada from a timid, defensive side that cowered at the feet of top-level opponents into a dynamic, attacking unit that plays the game on its terms and without a trace of fear.

Herdman’s meticulousness and attention to detail in getting his teams ready for a specific opponent are legendary. So are his motivational skills. He’s a bright, forward-thinking coach who has continuously managed to get the very best out of this Canadian team. Canada might get out-played in Qatar. But they’re not going to be out-worked by opponents in games, nor are they going to get out-coached thanks to Herdman’s tactical acumen.

The Breakout Candidate: The world could soon find out in Qatar what fans and observers in this country have known for quite some time: Tajon Buchanan is the next big Canadian star who will take the game by storm.

Buchanan, a 23-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has been excellent for Club Brugge this season, both in Belgium’s first division and the UEFA Champions League. The right winger/wingback has a bit of Davies in him: Speed, quick on the dribble and a fearlessness in taking on defenders. But he also has a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and doesn’t back down from confrontations on the pitch, nor is he easily intimidated.


 

Much of Morocco’s attack comes down their right flank through Achraf Hakimi. (Joan Monfort/AP)

MOROCCO
FIFA world ranking: 22 
Top scorer in qualifying: Ayoub El Kaabi (5 goals) 
Odds to win the World Cup: +12,000 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +1,000 

Previous World Cup appearances: 5 
Best showing: Round of 16 in 1986 
2018 World Cup: Group stage  

Manager: Walid Regragui 
Probable formation: 4-3-3 
Probable starting XI: Yassine Bounou (Sevilla) — Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich), Romain Saïss (Beşiktaş), Nayef Aguerd (West Ham United), Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain) — Selim Amallah (Standard Liège), Sofyan Amrabat (Fiorentina), Azzedine Ounahi (Angers) — Sofiane Boufal (Angers), Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla), Hakim Ziyech (Chelsea).

The Big Question: Will key striker Youssef En-Nesyri, who has yet to score for Sevilla in La Liga this season, finally break out of his goal drought and come good for his country in Qatar?

The Pulse: Morocco breezed through the World Cup qualifiers, going a perfect 6-0 as they outscored opponents by a combined 20-1, and they were the only African nation to win all of its games. Bosnian manager Vahid Halilhodzic oversaw the team through the qualifying campaign but was fired in the summer after Morocco’s poor showing at the African Nations Cup. New coach Walid Regragui only took charge on Aug. 31, and his appointment was welcome news by the players who generally didn’t get along with Halilhodzic.

Still, Regragui is relatively new to the job, and he hasn’t had the same amount of time to prepare as other managers at the World Cup. With this in mind, don’t expect Morocco to stray too far from its playing style, which relies on a sturdy and gritty central midfield, and the two fullbacks to get forward and link up with the front-three in attack.

The X-factor: A lot of Morocco’s best attacking moments come down the right flank courtesy of Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf Hakimi. The Madrid-born Hakimi is one of the best right fullbacks in the world, combining defensive nous with an ability to bomb forward at great speed to lend his support to the attack. Hakimi has a nose for goal, having scored at vital moments in games against Gabon and Malawi at the 2022 African Nations Cup. 

The Breakout Candidate: Sofyan Amrabat, who plays for Fiorentina in Serie A, is a bull of a midfielder who uses his six-foot frame to his advantage in winning physical battles in the middle of the park. The 26-year-old serves as Morocco’s midfield anchor while also protecting the defence, an unglamorous job that he does selflessly and with aplomb. 


 

Croatia’s midfield maestro Luka Modric is back for another run at the World Cup. (Darko Bandic/AP)

CROATIA 
FIFA world ranking: 12 
Top scorer in qualifying: Luka Modrić, Mario Pašalić, Ivan Perišić (3 goals each) 
Odds to win the World Cup: +2,989 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +240

Previous World Cup appearances: 5 
Best showing: Finalists in 2018
2018 World Cup: Finalists  

Manager: Zlatko Dalić 
Probable formation: 4-3-3
Probable starting XI: Dominik Livaković (Dinamo Zagreb) — Josip Juranović (Celtic), Josip Šutalo (Dinamo Zagreb), Joško Gvardiol (RB Leipzig), Borna Sosa (VfB Stuttgart) — Luka Modrić (Real Madrid), Marcelo Brozović (Inter Milan), Mateo Kovačić (Chelsea) — Nikola Vlašić (Torino), Marko Livaja (Hajduk Split), Ivan Perišić (Tottenham).

The Big Question: Can a Croatian team that looked stale and failed to convince during the qualifiers find some inspiration and perform up to its usual standards in Qatar?

The Pulse: Croatia’s biggest strength is its midfield, with experienced campaigners Luka Modrić, Marcelo Brozović and Mateo Kovačić having more than 300 caps between them. Dangerous winger Ivan Perišić has 115 caps to his credit, providing Croatia with even more experience and quality further up the pitch in coach Zlatko Dalić’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. The young centre back duo of Joško Gvardiol and Josip Šutalo have shown a lot of promise, helping to solidify the team’s spine.

But there are concerns between the posts, as Croatia doesn’t have a clear-cut No. 1 goalkeeper. Dominik Livaković has been tabbed as the starter almost by default, as none of the team’s shot stoppers are what you would consider top-class goalkeepers. The Croats also lack an established goal scorer up front who can take on defenders and serve as the main reference point in attack.

The X-factor: At 37 years of age, Luka Modric is still going strong as a world-class player and truly one of the best midfielders in the world. He might have lost a step of pace, but the Real Madrid maestro has adapted his game, and is just as effective of a playmaker and midfield orchestrator as he’s ever been. This is Modric’s team, as Croatia’s attack flows through his talented feet, which he uses to elegantly distribute the ball to his teammates and unlock the tightest of defences with killer passes.

The Breakout Candidate: Still only 20-years-old, centre back Joško Gvardiol has been entrusted to quarterback the defence alongside fellow youngster Josip Šutalo (22) after the pair displaced veterans Dejan Lovren and Domagoj Vida as starters. A standout at Bundesliga club RB Leipzig, Gvardiol is a tidy and smart defender who’s comfortable on the ball, and he can chip in by scoring the odd goal, too.


 

THE BOLD PREDICTION FOR GROUP F

Canada will beat out Croatia for second place in Group B to claim a spot in the Round of 16.

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