June 8, 2012
Email Steve Bottjer
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Canada 1 – Cuba 0
The games that really matter resumed for the Canadian Men’s National Team at Estadio Pedro Marrero in Havana, Cuba today, with the kickoff of the 3rd round of World Cup qualifying for Brazil 2014.
The Prelude to Battle
Canada last played Cuba twelve years ago in a match that the Canadians won 1-0 away over Cuba at the same stadium, with Jason de Vos scoring the lone goal in the June 4th, 2000 victory. Canadian National Team Stephen Hart likely went into this game hoping that his team could duplicate that victory in front of a hostile Cuban crowd in an imposing away match that was filled with pressure given that both teams were likely desperate to open this round of World Cup qualifying with a positive result.
While Cuba went into this one as the lower ranked team in the FIFA rankings, Canada were, as usual in CONCACAF away fixtures, up against more than just the opposition squad. With this game kicking off around the hottest time of the day at 2pm in the Cuban capital, the Canadians were also going to have to battle the heat and a very poor quality pitch in front of pro-Cuban crowd. (It is important to note that there was a considerable contingent of Canadian fans in attendance.)
Hart went with exactly the same lineup as the team that earned an impressive draw in Canada’s centenary match against the United States last Sunday, as he elected to not start star midfielder Atiba Hutchinson for this match.
In a little bit of luck, this one kicked off with the weather a little bit overcast and the temperature likely not as hot as the Cubans had hoped. It was still quite hot and humid, but a tad less than when the Canadian team had practiced at Estadio Pedro Marrero yesterday.
This match commenced with the Cubans looking like they were intent on taking the game to their visitors and Canada replying with the same type of patient and deliberate game plan that ultimately resulted in a clean sheet against the United States last week.
The Opening Forty-Five
While the main emphasis for many going into this one had been on the expected temperature at which the game would be contested, it became clear early on that the wind was also going to have an effect on how both teams would need to manage the match.
With the Cubans looking to quickly transition to the attack on a pitch on which they were clearly more comfortable than the visiting side, Canada took a more cautious approach with an emphasis on avoiding midfield turnovers.
The Canadians first scoring chance came in the 21st minute when Will Johnson set up Dwayne De Rosario for a scoring chance on a play that ended with Cuban keeper Odisnel Cooper Despaigne just able to deflect the ball to safety.
The two teams would trade moderately dangerous chances as the half progressed, with Canada looking more proficient offensively as the half progressed.
Canada answered that play with some nice work by midfielder Nik Ledgerwood winning Canada a corner kick. On the ensuing delivery by Will Johnson, De Rosario beat his defender, but his powerful header was a few inches over the crossbar.
In the 29th minute Cuban attacker Ariel Pedio Martinez Gonzalez tested Lars Hirschfeld with a shot that the veteran Canadian keeper was able to get a hand on towards deflecting the ball out of bounds to safety.
The Canadians came close again in the 38th minute when Ledgerwood set up Tosaint Ricketts for a shot that was ultimately just wide of the near post.
Canada came very close to opening the scoring just before the half-time whistle when De Rosario hammered a shot off the Cuban cross bar.
||Great result today, battled through some tough conditions and came out with 3 points! Thanks to all the supporters who made it down #CMNT
The Second Half
With Simeon Jackson and Atiba Hutchinson on the Canadian bench, Hart elected to not make any lineup changes to start the second half.
The patience displayed by Hart and the entire Canadian team was rewarded in the 54th minute when Ricketts penetrated down the right side and then passed the ball back to right back David Edgar, who used some nice dribbling and movement to open up some space to deliver a cross, with his pinpoint delivery redirected into the back of the Cuban net off the head of Olivier Occean.
The goal was a well deserved reward for a player who had played much of the first half as the lone Canadian forward and as a striker who was sometimes outnumbered four to one when he had the ball at his feet.
With Canada looking like they might have another goal or two in them, Hirschfeld made a mistake when he handled the ball outside of his penalty area and was given a red card for the infraction. The Canadians were down to ten men and would need to see this one out with the opposition holding a man advantage for the remainder of the game and with Milan Borjan coming on to take the place of Hirschfeld in the Canadian net.
While credit should be given to the Cuban team for the competitive manner in which they contested this game, they generated few dangerous chances with the man advantage, as Canada just focused that much more on keeping their shape and managing the game in an intelligent fashion.
Cuban forward Andy Ramos Gomez had an excellent chance to test Borjan in the 79th minute but he lost control of the ball in the Canadian box at a crucial moment and Canada was able to clear.
Substitute striker Simeon Jackson almost doubled Canada’s lead playing as a very lone man up top, but the Cuban keeper was able to make a crucial save to keep his team’s deficit at one goal.
The Canadians came even closer on the break in the 87th minute when Atiba Hutchinson set up De Rosario, who was prevented from an adding to his tally as Canada’s all-time leading scorer by an excellent save by Cooper Despaigne.
Ultimately, the experience and professionalism of the Canadian team prevailed, as a ten man Canadian team was able to hold off the Cubans and earn a crucial first win in the third round of World Cup qualifying.
Following the match, forward Dwayne De Rosario hailed the victory while also giving credit to the Cuban team for a hard fought match.
“The main thing is that we came away with a win and that is the most important thing. I think all around the performance was good. It was a tough environment to play in and to be fair to the Cubans, I thought they were decent. They had their fair amount of chances, but we limited their number of quality chances. And the once chance that Olivier (Occean) got, he put it away in the back of the net to give us a crucial victory to kick this round of our World Cup campaign,” said De Rosario.
Head Coach Stephen Hart admitted his relief about pulling out the win while playing down a man and suggested that Honduras and Panama will have their own difficulties playing their away games against Cuba.
“It was very, very difficult for the players today and I think Cuba are going to take points from anybody that they play here. A lot of teams that have a passing game and a passing pattern are going to struggle,” said Hart.
The Canadian Head Coach was also candid in discussing how the state of the pitch altered the manner in which Canada had to approach the game.
“I think with the pitch the first pass was very slow. The grass was so high you could barely see the player’s boots. So the speed of play was significantly reduced. Even dribbling, it was often that they were travelling faster than the ball. It was difficult,” said Hart.
Striker Olivier Occean highlighted the importance of finishing the one scoring chance he had in the game.
“It was very important for us. It was one chance and one goal. We talked about it at half time that once we got a chance, that we had to get it on target. We got our chance and the three points are fantastic,” said Occean.
Keeper Milan Borjan, who came on in the 66th minute when starting keeper Lars Hirschfeld was sent off, admitted he was surprised to play and he expressed his happiness about the Canadian supporters that travelled to Cuba to support the national team.
“I was very surprised (to play) actually. I didn't expect it, but it is good. I got some playing time and we got a win. That is the most important right now. I was really happy because I could be part of it. I'm already part of it, but it allowed me to be on the pitch for the victory. I was giving everything and I'm really happy about that. It was amazing. It is the best feeling for a player when their own fans come to support them at the opponent's field. I don't know how to explain - it's just awesome. Thanks again for coming,” said Borjan.
The Final Word: Key win another confidence boost for Canada
While Canada’s performance in their friendly against the United States last Sunday was impressive for a number of reasons, ultimately, aside from building some much needed confidence, that performance came in a game that didn’t really count for a whole lot.
This match was a huge win, as Canada very fundamentally needed to open this round with a win for both very functional reasons in a competitive group and with regard to perception from their own fans and the Canadian media. Realistically, it is not an exaggeration to say that Canada came through with flying colours under very challenging circumstances. When taking into account the negative influence that a truly brutal pitch had on Canada’s passing game, the only glaring drawback was the error by Hirschfeld that resulted in his sending off.
Other than that play, both Lars Hirschfeld and Milan Borjan were solid between the sticks and the back line lead by team captain Kevin McKenna was a pillar of strength and conservative bastion of excellent marking and near perfect positioning. In the midfield, Julian de Guzman delivered another top quality performance and Will Johnson delivered the type of solid two way game that has made him a fixture for Hart in the middle of the pitch. Nik Ledgerwood wasn’t quite at the high bar that he had set for himself against the United States, but he did deliver a solid ninety minutes of play in the victory and again rewarded the faith that his head coach has often shown in him.
Offensively, Dwayne De Rosario looked dangerous almost every time he had the ball at his feet and, while he didn’t score in this game, he very much set the tempo for the Canadian attack. While his body language suggested some frustration at times in the first half, Olivier Occean got one genuine chance to score and, to his credit, he put a crucial and monumentally needed goal away.
Right back David Edgar again showed just how valuable an addition he has been to the Canadian National Team. He was solid in the defensive end and his pinpoint cross to Occean in the second half was the crucial play of the match.
When looked at individually, there was plenty to like about how each of the Canadian players performed on this day. However, the most important facet of this game was the organized, poised and holistic fashion in which Canada functioned as a unit. Add in the fact that the team earned a tough away win under very trying circumstances and it’s not difficult to be impressed by the mature and effective way in which the Canadian Men’s National Team has played over the past week.
The next test now comes at home on June 12th against a Honduran side that both the Canadian team and their supporters will be much more familiar with. If Canada can win that match and start this round with two key victories, their chances of qualifying for the next round of World Cup qualifying will look that much brighter.
1 Lars Hirschfeld
2 Nik Ledgerwood
5 Andre Hainaul
21 Ante Jazic
6 Julian de Guzman
9 Tosaint Ricketts
8 Will Johnson
4 Kevin McKenna
15 David Edgar
17 Olivier Occean
14 Dwayne De Rosario
(66) Borjan in for Ricketts; (69) Hutchinson in for De Guzman; (81) Jackson in for Occean.