The most unexpectedly chaotic group at this World Cup has a little more order to it now.
Croatia, with their terrific midfield trio of Luka Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Marcelo Brozovic surging to form and Andrej Kramaric finally firing, brought the calm at Khalifa Stadium. But only after another wild spell.
Less than an hour after Morocco had humbled the aging Belgians, Alphonso Davies scored the fastest goal of the tournament and Canada threatened to turn Group F completely on its head. But having been too wasteful against the Belgians, here John Herdman’s rookies were naive. The manager was too.
Croatia carved out a foothold and then ran rampant all over Canada’s midfield before the manager could — or would — do anything about it. Having caused a small diplomatic incident in the build-up when the tone of a promise to ‘F Croatia’ was lost, the Englishman was the one left cursing his fate as Canada followed Qatar out the exit door. Thirty-six years of waiting only to be, technically, the first team sent home.
The culmination of this group promises drama. Zlatko Dalic’s side face Belgium Thursday night knowing a draw will be enough but a win would help them avoid Spain in the last 16. Morocco can also potentially top the whole thing. So too can the sorry Belgians. Chaos.
It took Canada just 68 seconds to do what they couldn’t in 90-plus minutes and 22 attempts against Belgium — put one on target. Tajon Buchanan latched on to a long clearance from goalkeeper Milan Borjan, raced at Borna Sosa and sent a gorgeous ball to the back post where Davies rose above Celtic’s Josip Juranovic and powered it home.
The man they call the Roadrunner in Munich had the fastest goal of this World Cup. But it carried more significance than that. It was the first in Canadian men’s team history at this tournament. For a player who missed a crucial penalty against the Belgians it was sweet redemption.
The group was taking another turn before we’d even settled down from the breakneck ones made by the Moroccans. Canada stayed energetic and ambitious and for the first 20 minutes they were, remarkably, winning the midfield battle, largely by staying wide and bypassing it.
But Modric, Brozovic and Kovacic have felt their way into plenty of fights in their time. And once they did here, they found a soft Canadian centre. Much too soft. Canada’s historic run back here came through some forgiving fields in CONCACAF and Herdman knew as much. He had been desperate for more testing friendly opposition ahead of the tournament, perhaps fearing how his team might hold up under intense pressure from an opponent of this calibre.
The answer: not well. Kovacic raced forward on 22 minutes and almost found Livaja who poked it to Borjan. Four minutes later the ball was in the net but Kramaric was ruled offside. He’d soon be back.
Canada simply couldn’t get out. Beloved captain Atiba Hutchinson on his 100th cap looked very much like a man who’ll be 40 in February and Modric was moving in Modric ways and into Modric places.
Celtic-bound Alistair Johnston was feeling a lot of pressure on the right and when Ivan Perisic bore down nine minutes before the interval that pressure told. He nutmegged Johnston to find Kramaric who fired beyond Borjan.
Just as Belgium had taught Canada the importance of taking just one chance, Croatia would teach them how to make pressure count. The midfield was completely overrun now and in truth, Herdman really ought to have acted upon it. Instead the 2018 finalists were ahead within minutes. Juranovic slalomed in off the right wing with much too little resistance and, just like Perisic had done Johnston, nutmegged Steven Vitoria to free Livaja racing through that soft middle.
The game had turned and Zlatko Dalic breathed a huge sigh of relief. His opposite number got to work on trying to ensure this wasn’t all over within four days of football.
Herdman made two changes, one of them enforced as Eustaquio limped off. On came Toronto FC’s Jonathan Osorio and CF Montreal’s Ismaël Koné. That he had to turn to two MLS talents to tame a midfield made of Real Madrid, Chelsea and Inter Milan was perhaps a required reality check too.
It was more open but also a little more even after that. Osorio nearly had a spectacular introduction as he whipped one past the post. Jonathan David had a superb effort tipped over by Dominik Livakovic. But Croatia would break and threaten too. Canada were going to live or die by the open approach.
They died. With 20 minutes to go Perisic probed again and then sent a deep cross booming high in to Kramaric. The striker’s instant control was delicious and deceived Kamal Miller entirely. He finished again through Canadian legs — this time Hutchinson’s.
There would be time for one more in injury time as Miller, the last man back, seemed to nutmeg himself as he left the ball slip under his feet. Substitute Lovro Majer raced clear and squared to another, Mislav Orsic to make it a rout. Tough on Canada.
Herdman always said there would be learning experiences here for his side. With all four goals featuring nutmegs, there’s a clear one to start with. They’ll have time for that now. But they may just have a say in the final order of the group too.
Croatia, rejuvenated, know they can have the loudest say.
Livakovic 7; Juranovic 6, Lovren 6, Gvardiol 7, Sosa 7; Modric 8 (Pasalic 86), Brozovic 8, Kovacic 9 (Majer 86); Livaja 7 (Petkovic 61), Kramaric 8, Perisic 9 (Orsic 86).
Borjan 6; Johnston 5, Vitoria 6, Miller 5, Laryea 6 (Hoilett 63); Buchanan 6, Hutchinson 4 (Adekugbe 72), Eustaquio 5 (Kone HT), Davies 7; Larin 5 (Osorio HT), David 5 (Cavallini 72).
Andres Matonte (URU)