The great Belgium golden generation, with its promise, its great names and its ever smouldering internal politics, has been one of the miracles of 21st century talent production, and how tired they look now.
This could have been the next World Cup shocks of 2022, had Thibaut Courtois not picked Alphonso Davies’ first half penalty. There are brave underdog World Cup performances, shaded with naivety and often killed off by exhaustion – and then there was Canada. A thrilling return to the World Cup after their one forgettable appearance 36 years ago, they were outstanding in all aspects save those big moments in front of goal.
Not just the penalty miss from Davies after ten minutes who, to his credit, went on to be the game’s best player nonetheless. Chances fell to Tajun Buchanan, and yet this fine team that battled through 20 gruelling qualifiers to get here as Concacaf’s No 1, matched the side rated 2nd in the world by Fifa. Canada virtually split the possession with Roberto Martinez’s players. They created more chances, They came to play with a high-risk high line and a spirit you could feel in every big tackle.
It meant giving some big spaces to the greatest Premier League midfielder of them all, but this was not Kevin De Bruyne’s day. Maybe he is saving that for later in the tournament but even so it will be a worry for Martinez. Eden Hazard waited in vain for the game to come to him and was substituted before the hour. Romelu Lukaku was not fit for selection. Courtois, you had to say, lived up to the billing.
There were more Canada chances but only Belgium took theirs, and it came just before half-time for Michy Batshuayi. A straight hit down the middle from Toby Alderweireld, one of four Belgian cap centurions to start the game. The ball divided an admittedly immobile Canada defence. It was finished by occasional penalty box poacher, and full-time loanee, Batshuayi, now at Fenerbahce.
Even so, at half-time Martinez was sufficiently concerned to make some major changes to his side. He took off Yannick Carrasco who had conceded the penalty with an arm carelessly raised in the area, and the decision given on Var review. Youri Tielemans, who had struggled too, was also replaced.
Canada’s English coach John Herdman will wonder why his side were not given a second first half penalty for a clear foul by Axel Witsel on Richie Laryea. The Zambian referee Janny Sikazwe deferred to his Var team who did not seem to notice that Laryea was not offside – having been given the ball by Eden Hazard’s careless pass back towards goal.
There will be a concern for Martinez, that his team just looked weighed down by the years now. Canada were vibrant, encouraged by Herdman to take risks. They went after their opposition in a politely insistent Canadian way. Herdman had set up with five defenders and then five midfielders and attackers approximating a pentagon set up loosely to trap the opposition. It meant that they would always be vulnerable to the counter attack and that gaps would appear that might give other teams the fear. But Canada seemed willing to live with that.
Davies and Jonathan David are genuine big Europe-based talents, and one might add the Porto midfielder Stephen Eustaquio to that list. The Canada captain Atiba Hutchinson plays for Besiktas and was winning his 99th cap on his World Cup debut at the age of 39. He lasted about as long as the older Hazard and had a much greater effect on the game.
There were some fine performances in the Canada defence who were, by the nature of their system, obliged to throw themselves into some challenges. In the end the chances that Canada had in that first half were more difficult to recreate once Belgium had settled in to defend their lead after the break. They had 21 attempts on the Belgian goal and yet, the penalty aside, it never really looked like they might beat Courtois.
Rate the players
Martinez: ‘We showed another side of our play’
Roberto Martinez said after the match: “Today was such a difficult game. Canada were better than us in what we wanted to do.
“They were very clear in what they wanted to do.
“This Canada team, they’ve got a lot of pace, a little directness and we had to show another side of our play.
“I’m delighted because we won the game through grit, through experience, through the quality of a goalkeeper that he can keep you in the game.
“The victory for me today is more important than a victory when you play well.”
Herdman: ‘We’ve still got a chance’
Herdman said: “I told [the players] that I lost my first game at the London 2012 Olympics and we went on to win our first medal in 86 years.
“So it’s how we respond now. With that belief and we keep the brotherhood tight, we’ve got a chance.”
Herdman rues missed opportunity
Canada manager John Herdman said after the game: “I’m proud of the performance but you need to take three points in your first game. We had an opportunity tonight to be top of the group, that was the mission and we missed it.
“The lads put a shift in. They showed that they can live on this stage and I think they made the fans proud and made them feel like they belong here. That was important for us.”
Martinez: ‘We need to appreciate the win’
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez said that he wasn’t worried about Belgium’s performance as they will develop over the course of the tournament.
“At the end it’s a win. We need to play better, we need to grow. This is a tournament.
“We need to appreciate the win. We didn’t play well, that is clear.”
He added that even though some of the better teams have ahd poor results so far, they are likely to improve as the tournament goes on
Canada rue missed chances
Canada had plenty of shots, but few clear-cut opportunities.
Davies will be gutted to have missed the penalty, which was the first he had taken in his career. Perhaps it should have been given to Jonathan David, who has scored nine out of 12 that he has taken.
FULL TIME: Belgium 1 Canada 0
After a valiant performance from the Canadians, Belgium manage to hold on.
Canada weren’t as good in the second half after dominating the first, but preformed admirably.
It will be interesting to see how they get on against Croatia and Morocco.
90+2 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
De Bruyne fashions a chance after a short corner with Trossard, but the keeper easily gathers it.
Larin then had another header from a distance, but again didn’t trouble Courtois.
Not long left with only five added on.
90 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
End to end again, with Trossard running the ball out of play after getting inside the box. It was well defended by Miller.
Then Larin nearly got free in the box after a smart dummy.
Canada also had a corner from Liam Miller, but it was well overhit.
87 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Miller with a cross from deep for Canada, which Larin heads over. Not an easy chance but he didn’t come close.
86 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
De Bruyne floats in the free kick which Dendoncker headers above the bar.
Maybe was a bit high for the Aston Villa player.
De Bruyne then with a chance from outside the box which he blazes over the bar.
83 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Johnston is caught up the park and Openda breaks for Belgium.
Johnston then hacks him down from behind and goes into the book for it.
De Bruyne free kick out to the left hand side.
81 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Subs for Canada: Liam Millar replaces Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan Osorio replaces Stephen Eustáquio.
80 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Chance for Canada!
A great whipped cross from the right towards Larin, but his header doesn’t have much power on it. Caught relatively easily by Courtois.
78 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Belgium sub: Batshuayi off for Openda.
77 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
The game has been pretty scrappy of late, with no clear cut chances for either side.
Canada are still fighting, but they aren’t dominant like they were in the first half.
They’re still pressing high though, and having plenty of the ball.
Larin nearly had a chance after Buchanan played him in from the right, but the ball was cleared by a defender.
74 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Sub for Canada: Adekugbe on for Laryea.
Pictures: Belgium holding out
69 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
A great bit of skill from Onana and then De Bruyne finds himself in space. Tries to find Batshuayi but yet another wayward pass.
Canada seem to be tiring a bit, but they’ve still been pretty solid.
68 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Onana with a good run forward and a slide tackle put him off his balance just as he was going through, making him lose the ball.
End-to-end stuff afterwards, with it culminating in a Laryea shot from outside the box which went wide.
De Bruyne has had a lot of wayward passes today, but he set up Batshuayi inside the box who was blocked by Laryea.
62 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Belgium sub. Brighton’s Leandro Trossard comes on for Eden Hazard. Trossard has been great for Brighton this season.
61 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Canada still having plenty of possession in the Belgium half.
They need to try to get it to Davies in advanced positions, as he has the quality which could be crucial in the final third.
Eustaquio had a free kick in an advanced area but it was too long and didn’t find anyone
58 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Subs for Canada. Larin replaces Hoilett and Kone replaces captain Hutchinson.
56 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Buchanan has looked really good. He just flicked the ball over Vertonghen’s head, and anyone who does that always impresses me.
His energy has been great and he’s also had a good final ball.
If only he could score!
55 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Canada have come out fighting in the second half, as determined as they were in the first.
They’ve continued to press high, winning a corner after Hoilett closed down Dendoncker.
What do you think of the players so far?
Try our player rater below.
48 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Chance for Canada! Eustaquio with a nutmeg on De Bruyne and a good cross to David, but the header is poor and goes wide.
46 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
And we’re off again.
Belgium bring on Meunier and Onana for Tielemans and Carrasco.
Not clinical enough
Canada’s high press
Canada have been rushing Belgium when they have the ball. It’s been high intensity and Belgium have struggled to deal with it.
But they have struggled to stay calm once they get in front of goal, and that’s what cost them in the first half.
Pictures: Batshuayi’s goal
Half time: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Canada will be disappointed to be trailing at the break.
They dominated the half, with 14 shots to Belgium’s four. Davies should have done better with the penalty, but they have had other chances.
Batshuayi’s half-volley is the difference.
45+2 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
Chances for Canada. Davies finds David inside the box, and the Lille man lays it off for Hoilett, but they’re not on the same wavelength.
Laryea then finds himself on the right-hand side of the box and finds Buchanan with a low cross, but he can’t find the target.
They’re still having a go!
44 mins: Belgium 1 Canada 0
The ball is played over Batshuayi’s left shoulder and he catches it on the half-volley inside the box and it goes in the net.
A great ball from Alderweireld and the defenders were sleeping.
It’s cruel on Canada, but they didn’t capitalise on their dominance.
GOOOAAAALL FOR BELGIUM
Batshuayi like a fox!
43 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Belgium are giving Canada so much time on the ball, even in their own half.
This starkly contrasts with how much pressure Canada have been putting on them. The midfielders are regularly winning the ball back for the underdogs.
The Var officials decide that the nudge was legal. Perhaps a bit risky from Witsel but Laryea should have passed the ball earlier. He had a team-mate free on the edge of the box.
38 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Var check! Laryea goes down after a nudge from Witsel on the right-hand side of the box.
Picture: Hutchinson shot
35 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
For all Belgium have been poor, Eden Hazard has had some pretty nice touches so far.
He’s had little game time with Real Madrid this season, could he get a move in January?
33 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
David has a poor header from inside the box after a good cross from the right hand side.
not an easy chance but he’ll be disappointed with such a weak attempt.
31 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Another chance for Canada as Buchanan finds David in the box, but the Lille striker has his shot blocked.
He really should have passed to his right, where Laryea was free.
29 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Canada are really taking the game to Belgium. They are so confident on the ball and are very accurate with their passing.
Johnston has a penalty shout after what looked like a late tackle from the defender, but he got up and powered a shot which Courtois beat away.
It was straight at him but lots of welly behind it.
If it keeps going like this, Canada will surely score.
27 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Half chance for Canada.
Alphonso Davies with a great run from the left side, taking it past a few players and throwing in some stepovers.
He tees up Hutchinson, who strikes far wide of the right post from outside the box.
23 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Chance for Belgium!
A great touch from Hazard on the left side and then he plays it to Tielemans outside the box.
Batshuayi set up just outside the right-hand side of the six-yard box, but Miller came sliding in to block and save the day.
The first time that Belgium have come close so far. The following corner was cleared easily.
Picture: Davies’ penalty miss
19 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Belgium are struggling to hold onto the ball for any length of time. Canada are pushing up very high and they’re struggling to handle it.
They nearly fashioned a chance through a good move in which De Bruyne was breaking at the defence, but his pass, surprisingly, was poor.
16 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Chance for Canada! Johnston with a great pass over the top for Hoilett.
Hoilett then holds on to it, cuts inside and drags his shot past the left post.
A decent opportunity, Belgium can’t handle Canada at the moment.
14 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Despite the penalty miss, it’s still all Canada. Laryea has a half chance from the edge of the box which he drags wide.
Canada then go close from a cross. Belgium all over the place, but get the ball back due to an offside.
Alphonso Davies strikes to the bottom left but Courtois dives the right way.
It wasn’t hit hard or in the corner.
10 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Penalty to Canada!
Buchanan’s shot from a corner is deflected off Carrasco’s left wrist. Courtois catches relatively easily, but is a pen after a Var check.
Yellow card for Carrasco.
3 mins: Belgium 0 Canada 0
Some early pressure from Canada, with a decent cross from Hoilett and Davies driving into the box.
In the first minute they got away with one after Michy Batshuayi nearly exploited a poor pass from Johnston, but the shot was saved by the Canada keeper.
And we’re off!
Canada kick off in a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Tonight’s referee, Janny Sikazwe, is notorious for blowing the full time four minutes early in an Africa Cup of Nations match between Mali and Tunisia earlier this year.
He was suffering from heat stroke apparently.
Should be interesting.
Can Canada cause an upset?
We’ve already had a couple of unexpected results so far, with Saudi Arabia beating Belgium and Japan beating Germany, so can Canada follow suit?
They will need Davies and David to be on top form.
One of the oldest players at the World Cup ever
Canada’s Atiba Hutchinson is making his World Cup debut tonight. He’s 39 and this will be his 99th cap.
It makes him one of the oldest World Cup players ever, and he is the only member of Canada’s squad who was born when they last qualified for a World Cup in 1986.
Players warming up
Canada’s English coach
John Herdman, 47, started out as a primary school teacher in his native County Durham and has gone on to take Canada to only their second ever World Cup.
The Englishman has transformed the Canadian men’s team, securing qualification in March.
Before that, he won two Olympic bronze medals as head coach of the women’s team.
You can read Sam Wallace’s interview with Herdman here.
Pictures: Fans gear up for the game
Davies the main man for Canada
Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies is Canada’s most high-profile player by a distance.
He is used as a marauding left-back by the Bundesliga side, but we can expect to see him play further up the park tonight as Canada look to exploit his attacking prowess.
Lille’s Jonathan David is also a threat. The forward has nine goals in 15 games this season and 22 in 35 for his country.
Reading’s Junior Hoilett, who played in the Premier League for Blackburn, QPR and Cardiff City, also starts.
Dendoncker and Castagne start for Belgium
Aston Villa’s Leander Dendoncker and Leicester City’s Timothy Castagne both start for Belgium tonight.
Only two of the starting eleven have never played in England, with Leicester’s Youri Tielemans and Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne also starting.
As expected, Thibaut Courtois is in goal and Eden Hazard starts in attack.
Romelu Lukaku misses out through injury.
The teams are out
Belgium: Courtois, Dendoncker, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Castagne, Tielemans, Witsel, Carrasco, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Batshuayi.
Subs: Theate, Faes, Mignolet, Casteels, Mertens, Meunier, Thorgan Hazard, Trossard, Onana, Vanaken, De Ketelaere, Openda, Doku, Debast.
Canada: Borjan, Johnston, Steven Vitoria, Miller, Hoilett, Hutchinson, Stephen Eustaquio, Laryea, Buchanan, Davies, David.
Subs: St. Clair, Adekugbe, Piette, Fraser, Cavallini, Ugbo, Kaye, Kone, Pantemis, Larin, Osorio, Millar, Wotherspoon, Cornelius, Waterman.
Last chance for Belgium’s golden generation?
Four years ago in Russia, Belgium finished third, their highest ever finish in a World Cup.
They were impressive in 2018, beating Brazil 2-1 in the quarter-final, but they came up short in a 1-0 semi-final defeat to eventual tournament winners France.
Their campaign at Euro 2020 was rather disappointing, as they were again beaten by the tournament winners. This time they lost 2-1 to Italy in the quarter-finals
They are the second placed side in the world and will be hoping to go all the way.
Belgium head into the World Cup off the back of a defeat, losing 1-0 to the Netherlands in their final Nations League match in September. Three days earlier Kevin De Bruyne had starred in a 2-1 win over Wales.
Broader recent results will nevertheless certainly leave them confident of progressing from the group stage at World Cup 2022 in Qatar, with Croatia their biggest threat in Group F.
The Belgians topped their qualifying group with eight victories and two draws, including an 8-0 thrashing of Belarus.
Romelu Lukaku finished top scorer for his country in qualifying with five goals.
Canada will be hoping to at least score a goal in this World Cup, having failed to do so in their only other World Cup finals appearance. They lost all three games in 1986, but were only beaten by a late goal from France in their first match.
Despite a hard group, Canada will not be without optimism this time round. The side have made serious gains in international football since Englishman John Herdman started managing the team in 2018 – the Newcastle fan had previously been in charge of the country’s women’s team.
Now sitting 41st in Fifa’s rankings, the team has also benefitted from the inauguration of a Canadian Premier League.
Herdman’s side beat Japan 2-1 in a friendly on Thursday, so will be hopeful of replicating that result in a competitive setting.