On paper, the Canadian women’s team’s recent two-game series against Nigeria looked to be a mismatch.
Canada, at No. 6, is 33 spots ahead of Nigeria in the current FIFA rankings, and was coming off a solid showing in February at the Alan Clark Cup where it tied hosts England (No. 8), before earning a rare win over No. 3 Germany, and losing to ninth-ranked Spain. But coach Bev Priestman saw value in playing the Nigerians, believing that lower-ranked nations are the ones that have given Canada the hardest time during her tenure.
The Canadians are scheduled to compete in July’s CONCACAF championship in Mexico, which doubles as the qualifiers for next year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics. They will have to face similar opponents to Nigeria, who will bunker defensively and try to frustrate their attacking efforts. So last Friday’s 2-0 win in Vancouver and Monday’s 2-2 draw in Langford, B.C., proved to be ideal preparation for the CONCACAF competition.
The big takeaway for Priestman from these matches against the 11-time African champions was that her team must find ways to efficiently break down opponents who set out to defend deep against them right from the start.
“We went into the Alan Clark Cup and I felt at times we looked more threatening, more attacking, creating more chances, and then you go and play these sorts of teams that do sit in and show us this respect,” Priestman said after Monday’s match. “That might be a sign of the future, and we just have to [adjust] the little things of how you play against a team that does that, whilst making sure you don’t concede at the other end.
“Overall, I felt we looked more dynamic; now we have to fine tune and get the rhythm and the right partnerships on the pitch at the right time.”
WATCH l Janine Beckie on Canadian women’s soccer celebration tour:
One partnership that appears to be working is the midfield trio of Jessie Fleming, Desiree Scott and Quinn, who started together in both games against Nigeria.
Fleming, in particular, has progressed by leaps and bounds since signing with English club Chelsea in 2020. Playing at such a big club has been the equivalent of Fleming earning an advanced degree, as it’s allowed her game to mature and progress. Whereas she used to float in and out of games for Canada, she is now the team’s main orchestrator in midfield, crucially linking the defence and attack.
It’s become crystal clear that Fleming, who scored the winner in Vancouver, will take over the mantle of leadership for this Canadian team once Christine Sinclair retires, such is the importance of what she brings to the table both on and off the field.
WATCH l Sinclair scores 189th international goal:
“She had challenges at Chelsea to break in, but has really started to establish herself this season,” Priestman told CBC Sports. “I think that’s all to do with her mindset. She has incredible ability, she can run all day, and then you add that mindset. She just wants to get better every single session, every single game.
“What we’ve seen from Jessie now is that clinical part of getting in the box and finishing chances. Even in the final third, can she get more passes into the box, rather than coming deeper. She’s taken her game to another level.”
Another lesson Canada learned against Nigeria was the value of playing Janine Beckie at right fullback. The veteran forward started out in a front three in the opening game against Nigeria, and then dropped in the back line in the second half. On Monday, Priestman opted to start her at fullback right from the opening kickoff.
In both games, Canada’s best attacking movements flowed through Beckie as she bombed down the right side from deep positions and delivered dangerous balls into the box. It was her exquisite cross from the wing that led to teammate Shelina Zadorsky scoring a late equalizer at the far post on Monday. Beckie’s overlapping and underlapping runs down the right side also unbalanced Nigeria, and allowed her to carve out dangerous scoring chances for herself.
WATCH l Zadorsky nets game-tying goal:
This wasn’t the first time Beckie was used at fullback, but it was her most impressive showing in the position, and it led to some commentators, most notably former Canadian midfielder Kaylyn Kyle, calling for her to play there on a more regular basis.
But Priestman warns that the game situation has to be right for her to slot Beckie in at fullback, and that her days of playing forward won’t end anytime soon.
“Janine can play both roles. When you play a team, and in particular against a back five [defence], like Nigeria or a Tier 2 team, Janine’s crossing ability that you get from a fullback position where they might have more time and space, I think she’s lethal there,” Priestman said.
“But I don’t want to take away what she also brings as a forward because you saw at the Arnold Clark Cup she can score, and not just set up goals. So, I see her featuring both ways, and I think the uniqueness of a World Cup is you’re going to get a game against a Tier 1 nation and then a game against a Tier 2 team. She’ll have to play in both positions, and it’s an asset that she can do that.”
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