World Cup Highlights: After Germany Was Upset by Japan, Favorites Spain and Belgium Win

James Wagner

BEL flag

Belgium

CAN flag

Canada

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — This World Cup is perhaps the final stand of Belgium’s golden generation of male soccer players. Behind stars like Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois, the country has hovered near the top of the world rankings for years and, in 2018, advanced within two wins of the World Cup title.

Despite reaching those heights, the Red Devils have yet to win a major international title. Now, with most of their stars in their early 30s, this could be the last time the core group of players is together with a significant trophy at stake.

In its opening match of the tournament on Wednesday at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, Belgium barely overcame a plucky Canada squad, which was making its first World Cup appearance since 1986, claiming a 1-0 victory thanks to a goal by Michy Batshuayi. The 3 points put Belgium atop Group F, after Morocco and Croatia played a scoreless draw on Wednesday.

“Canada was better,” said Belgium Coach Roberto Martínez, whose team was outshot 22-9. “But we found a way to get a win.”

For much of the first half, Canada dominated Belgium, dictating the pace with an aggressive attack and by winning an early penalty. In the ninth minute, Tajon Buchanan’s shot nicked Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco on the arm in the penalty area. Alphonso Davies, Canada’s best player, stepped up to take it, but Courtois dived to his right and saved the shot.

“I analyzed him, like I do with everyone,” Courtois said afterwards. “He shot twice that side before so that’s why I decided to go right.”

Added Jonathan Osorio of his teammate Davies, “He’s one of the best players in the world. He’ll move on. He’ll have another chance and he’ll bury it. There was also the best goalkeeper in the world in net that he had to fight past.”

Despite lacking the pedigree of Belgium, Canada held its own and displayed a confident flair and — as its coach, John Herdman, predicted earlier in the week — “a naïveté that’ll work for us and work against us.”

“We’ve got to understand that there’s moments in the game they’re going to be able to take control or they’ll adapt quicker than us as we sort of learn through it,” he said of his opponent. “But we’ve got this sort of wisdom of never being here before and there’s an element of not fearing what Belgium brings because it’s all new to us.”

Missed chances, though, were what ultimately doomed Canada. Led by Davies, Buchanan and Jonathan David, Canada repeatedly created opportunities, particularly in the first half, but kept missing or being denied by Courtois. In the second half, Belgium had better chances, but both teams appeared to run out of energy after playing at a frantic pace earlier.

“For what we produced, we deserved more,” said Canadian defender Steven Vitória, adding later, “It’s tough. You don’t want to play well and lose.”

Belgium needed just an instant to score the game’s only goal: a long pass in the 44th minute from Toby Alderweireld down the middle — the only place the Red Devils found an opening — then a hard run and a deft first-touch finish by Batshuayi.

Lukaku, Belgium’s career scoring leader, watched from the bench with an injured hamstring but could return later in the group stage. Belgium, after all, had its eyes on a deep run in the tournament, not just its opening game. Given Batshuayi’s failure to convert several other good chances after halftime, it may need Lukaku to get there.

“We have to do better,” Hazard said in French after the win.

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