Belgium have weathered a Canadian storm in a thrilling Group F encounter to record a 1-0 victory, courtesy of Michy Batshuayi’s 44th-minute strike.
The European side, ranked the second-best in the world, struggled to match Canada’s intensity at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Wednesday night but will be thankful to have avoided a major upset by escaping with a win.
Canada will rue a litany of missed chances, including star player Alphonso Davies’s failure to convert a penalty after just 11 minutes.
Thibaut Courtois’s save denied the 22-year-old from scoring what would have been Canada’s first-ever World Cup goal. In their only other World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1986, Canada lost all three matches and failed to hit the back of the net once.
Undeterred by the early setback, the Canadian attack continued to press throughout the first 45 minutes, with their speed creating havoc in the Belgian defence and keeping Courtois busy.
But against the run of play, Belgium took the lead when Batshuayi broke between two defenders, ran on to a long ball and shot past goalkeeper Milan Borjan just before the break.
Batshuayi was only playing because of first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku’s injury, which could have him missing the entire group stage.
Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ struggles to keep up
The second half was more even, with both sides creating chances to score.
But overall, Canada had 21 shots at goal compared to the nine registered by Belgium, whose well-established, star-studded team was far from convincing.
There were six players in their 30s in the starting lineup, four of them having accrued more than 100 international appearances.
Courtois and key midfielder Kevin De Bruyne might also reach three figures at this World Cup, in what increasingly looks like the last hurrah for this group, who have often been described as a “golden generation” of Belgian footballers.
Coach Roberto Martinez admitted after the game that his side had been second-best across the board but hailed the victory as an important foundation on which Belgium could build its tournament campaign.
Indeed, all the best moves came from a mobile and attacking Canadian team in front of their loud, maple leaf-waving fans. They had 14 shots in the first half alone – the most in 16 years by a team at the World Cup that failed to score.
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Davies stood out with his driving runs from left back while captain Atiba Hutchinson, at the age of 39, became the oldest outfield player to start a World Cup match.
But their failure to convert the slew of chances they generated leaves them bottom of Group F, propping up Morocco and Croatia, who have one point apiece, and first-placed Belgium.
Canada’s next outing will see them come up against Croatia on Sunday, with Belgium set to take on Morocco on the same day. A win for Martinez’s charges would guarantee their passage through to the knockout phase.