The CanWNT/CanXNT took on Nigeria in friendly action at BC Place on Friday, coming as part of their Olympic gold medal ‘Celebration Tour’. Here’s what stood out to us from that one.
It was a game befitting of a ‘Celebration Tour’.
On a night where there was a lot of partying off the pitch for the CanWNT/CanXNT, and for good reason, they made sure to extend the party to where it matters most for them right now – on the pitch.
And thanks to that, they were able to give Vancouver the sort of night that they were certainly itching for on Friday, as they beat Nigeria 2-0 in a friendly at BC Place.
In their first game in Vancouver in over 4 years, it was always going to be special for Canada to return to a field they often used to call home, but given everything else that was added on top, that only added to the occasion on the night.
From it being a chance to celebrate Canada’s Olympic gold medal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in front of their west coast fans for the first time, to honouring local hero Christine Sinclair’s standing as the top all-time international goalscorer, as well as sending off Canada’s Olympic hero and ‘Minister of Defence’ Stephanie Labbe as she officially enters retirement this month, it was a packed agenda for those in attendance for this game.
But while all of that was certainly memorable, it would’ve put a damper on those moments had Canada not been up to the task on the pitch, unable to come out and grab a win.
The good news, however, was that would not prove to be a problem whatsoever, as Canada, seemingly motivated by all that was going on, came out flying in this one.
In fact, other than their inability to finish a few golden opportunities, it might’ve been one of their most dominant performances in a while, as they hardly gave Nigeria an inch on the pitch all night, controlling proceedings for much of it.
And thanks to that, they were able to take a big step towards their next mountain, the 2023 World Cup cycle, which officially begins this summer with CONCACAF qualifiers, but has unofficially begun with matches like this.
So overall, it was a great night on many fronts for Canada.
From the chance to celebrate the past, to reconnecting with a fanbase they’d been away from for a while, to the result and performance itself, it was almost everything they could’ve asked for.
“It was fantastic,” Canadian head coach, Bev Priestman, said afterwards.
“It was emotional and it was exciting,” Labbe added. “It was just all of the emotions together, but what a moment.”
Because of that, it’s put them in a good position to cap off this camp on a high note, as they get set to play this same Nigerian side on Monday over at Langford’s Starlight Stadium, in the 2nd of 2 games this camp.
But before looking too far ahead towards that one, here’s a look back at this game, as it will be one that this Canadian team won’t forget anytime soon, and for good reason.
Canada rides wave of crowd to strong start:
Heading into it, you could feel that it was going to be a special atmosphere.
In their long-awaited return to Vancouver, and with there being so much to celebrate, the crowd was buzzing long before the game kicked off, and the energy in the building would only seem to rise with each passing minute before kick-off.
And then, when the game kicked off, that buzz would remain, as the BC Place crowd were quite happy to be able to watch Canada play, something they made sure to remind the players of.
“The fans here are tremendous,” Sinclair noted. “The energy that they gave us, there’s no better feeling than playing at home (here).”
As a result, that would pave the way for a strong start from the hosts.
Because of that, Canada would nearly got the party going early right in the 7th minute, as after a corner into the box, the ball fell to Vanessa Gilles, who short of options to go forward, decided to lay it off backwards to Desiree Scott. From there, the longtime Canadian midfielder lined up a shot, and it was a good one, but one that flashed just wide of the post, denying her of her first-ever goal in a Canadian shirt.
A few minutes later, Canada continued to knock on the door, as some nice interplay opened up the ball for a streaking Deanne Rose into the box, and the forward did well to wrap her left foot around the shot, although she was probably left wanting as the shot would end up going right down the middle.
Then, continuing that start, Gilles then had a nice look in the 13th minute off a nice Janine Beckie corner, and she made great contact on a header, but her attempt would be far too central.
And that’d lead to Canada’s best chance of the game early on in the 18th minute, as Beckie would do well to hold up a ball out wide, where she’d then look up and float a ball towards the back post. There, she’d do well to find a streaking Christine Sinclair, and the all-time top international goalscorer would get great contact on her header, but would just find herself denied by the solid hands of Nnadozie Chiamaka in the Nigeria goal.
Right after, Beckie then decided to turn finisher, lashing at a shot from 25 yards out, but her effort would sail well wide, leaving Canada to continue their hunt for an opening goal.
From there, Canada would continue to not just knock on the door, but start to bang on it, as well, continuing their strong start into the 25th minute. This time, it’d be Scott again, as she’d get the ball in a great area just inside the box after a nice Jessie Fleming cutback, and Scott would do well to take a touch and look up, unleashing a deadly strike, one that she’d send narrowly wide to keep her from opening her Canadian account.
But then, Nigeria would finally wake up in the 28th minute. Having absorbed all that pressure, they did well to send some of it the other way, and that led to the ball finding Rasheedat Ajibade at the edge of the box, where the Nigerian midfielder did well to force a strong stop out of Stephanie Labbe with a strong strike, one destined for the bottom corner.
Not long after, they’d then get a second decent look, as Chikwelu Rita found space to have a go from distance, and while her shot didn’t maybe get the power she hoped, it just tickled off the top of the net, nearly forcing Labbe into a tough save.
And from there, that’d be all that the first half would have to offer for both teams.
On one side, there was plenty to be happy about for Canada.
Yes, they hadn’t scored yet, which was something to watch for as the second half came around, but they controlled much of the play, and generated some grade-A looks.
Plus, on top of that, they were also playing some real fluid soccer at times, too, stringing together some nice flashes of possession, including some where they were playing quick one and two-touch soccer.
There were some things to watch out for, as you did have to be wary of how Nigeria had grown into the game, but given that Canada had plenty of firepower to turn to off the bench, they were probably expecting to rely on that to grab back control of the game, allowing them to put it to rest in the second stanza.
Canada finds their way again in the second:
So as the half started, you could only wonder how Canada would respond to that, as they knew that they needed to grab back control of the game, much as they did at the start.
And to kick things off, Canada would manage to do just that.
Be it the break, or the halftime talk, or whatever it was, they’d managed to find the level of play that they’d started the game with, and as a result, looked likely to break that deadlock early.
And they’d nearly do that, too, as Rose did well to find Fleming with a cross right inside the first few minutes, and she’d make great contact on her header, but would be just denied by Chiamaka’s safe hands.
And that’d combination would prove to be prophetic, as just minutes later, Rose and Fleming would combine for the long-awaited opener.
After some nice interplay down the right side, the ball would fall to Rose in a great position inside the box, and from there, she did well to look up and spot a streaking Fleming, who flew into the box at high-speed.
And after that, Fleming would take care of the rest, absolutely thumping the ball with full force, looping the ball over Chiamaka and into the top corner, giving the local crowd what they’d desperately longed for all game long.
Plus, Canada wouldn’t be done there, either. Just minutes after opening the scoring, Beckie would do well to find second-half sub, Adriana Leon, with a dart of a cross to the back post, and Leon would make decent contact on a shot, but not enough as she’d send her shot just wide.
Then, in the 63rd minute, Leon would get another great chance, as she’d find herself 1v1 with Chiamaka, where she’d force a great stop out of the Nigerian keeper, before slamming the rebound off the post. Right after, the ball would then fall to fellow second-half sub, Jordyn Huitema, who would also have a great look at goal, but she’d also fail to breach the net, as she’d be denied right on the line by a Nigerian defender.
Eager to score, the chances wouldn’t stop coming for Leon, either. Continuing her strong cameo off the bench, she’d then get a nice half-breakaway chance in the 67th minute, and she’d go for an audacious chip, one that would sail just over the goal.
But while the chances were coming for Canada, you just couldn’t help but wonder if they’d be made to pay for their lack of finishing.
And Nigeria would remind them of that in the 68th minute, as Payne Oyedupe did well to fashion a solid chance on her left foot, one that would be labelled for the top corner, but luckily for Canada, second-half sub, Kailen Sheridan, would manage to fly across the goal to get a hand to it, keeping her team in front.
Yet, that wouldn’t faze Canada, who would continue to go and try to make things happen at the other end.
Which would lead to their second goal in the 72nd minute.
First, it nearly came via Leon, as after a great ball in from Beckie, she did well to throw herself at the cross with an acrobatic effort, and she’d make great contact on the attempt, sending it towards the low corner, only finding itself just denied by Oluehi Tochukwu.
But then, on the ensuing corner, Canada would find that goal for real, as Beckie would manage to send in a great floated ball, one that would find Huitema at the back post. From there, Huitema would flick it across the box, where it’d find an onrushing Vanessa Gilles, who’d thump home the ball with authority for her team’s second.
And with that, you could really feel the crowd start to relax at BC Place, as while a 2 goal lead isn’t necessarily one that you can say means game over, based on the way that Canada was playing, it felt like you could make that proclamation.
Plus, they’d continue to knock on the door, despite that. First, Leon looped a header just wide of the mark in the 74th minute, before Sinclair sent one just past the post on a dangerous effort with her left foot from inside the box.
Then, 10 minutes later, Gilles would come inches away from a second, as she’d get another great header off in the 85th minute, one destined for the top corner if only not for the acrobatics of Tochukwu. And in the 90th minute, Huitema nearly got in on the action once again, getting a great look at goal from inside the box, but her shot would be far too central.
From there, however, that would be all that the game would have to offer, as the referee would blow her final whistle not too long after, capping a great half for the Canadians.
Should they have scored way more than they did? For sure, but they had to be happy with how they played, as they came out and absolutely took over the game with their play, giving them a deserved result.
Based on how they came out of the gates, it would’ve been a shame to see this end in anything but a win for Canada, so for them to go out and do that in the way that they did was certainly something that they’ll be happy about.
“That second half, we could’ve had a lot more goals,” Priestman said.
“We looked dangerous going forward, and that’s the most important thing, so I would’ve just liked to have had more balls in the back of the net, but they just wouldn’t go in.”
It’s Jessie Fleming’s world:
But while this game was certainly a great occasion to celebrate the past, Canada got a great glimpse of both the present and the future on the pitch on Friday.
And there was no better example of that than their opening scorer, Fleming, who much like she’d done for much of 2021 for Canada, continued to stamp out her mark as one of this team’s most important players right now.
Be it through her play in possession, where she does such a good job of dictating the pace that she wants the game to be played at, to her work off the ball, where she often runs non-stop both offensively and defensively to help her team, she just finds a way to control games in midfield.
Yet, that’s just what she does for this Canadian team.
These days, there is a lot of rotation in this Canadian squad, both due to the depth available to Priestman, as well as the fact that this is a team in transition between an older and new generation, but despite that, Fleming is one that seems to always be on the field in the big moments.
Plus, not only that, but she seems to shine even brighter in those big moments, as well, finding a way to kick her game up a notch.
So in a sense, it’s only fitting that she’d end up scoring the winner in such a memorable game, as despite the occasion, which was so easy to get wrapped up in, she wasn’t fazed by that, just coming out and playing her game.
Because of that, she reminded people why she has become a star for both her club (Chelsea) and country, showing why it’s easy to imagine her being in and among the Ballon d’Or race for years, as she’s quietly grown into one of the best players in the world in front of everyone’s eyes.
It might not be always easy to see, given her position as a midfielder, but make no mistake – it’s there, and continues to play a big role in this Canadian team’s success.
Otherwise, it was a very solid game for Canada tactically.
Entering this game, they’d talked about how they’d wanted to become a team that is able to add some offence to their elite defence, and while this is just one game, they certainly took a big step towards becoming that with their play.
Despite the 2-0 scoreline, they looked very fluid in the attack, doing well to play through Nigeria in possession, creating all sorts of high-quality looks for their attackers.
There is certainly work to still do in ensuring that they now convert those chances, no doubt, but that they’re creating them is certainly a good start, especially given their struggles in that area before.
And especially considering that a lot of that play came from their midfield, an area of the pitch that they continue to want to put more emphasis on, they were quite pleased with that, and for good reason.
“That’s something that we’ve really pushed since I’ve come in,” Priestman said. “Trying to control, overload and dominate the middle of the pitch.”
Plus, what was nice about all of that was that it came at no cost to Canada’s defence, either, as they were very solid in that area once again in this game.
They did have to rely on some big saves to get the clean sheet over the line, so it wasn’t as if they were perfect, but even those chances weren’t necessarily due to Canada’s defence, as they came more off of individual bursts from Nigeria, or shots from distance.
So overall, it was a very solid performance from Canada, one that was quite dominant in every aspect except the score.
Credit has to be given to Nigeria for how they battled, yes, as they put up a very strong effort despite being shorthanded, but Canada still could’ve come out even further ahead than they did, showing how good of a game it was for them.
But now, Canada won’t have much time to rest on their laurels after this game, as they’ll get right back into the swing of things on Monday, when they’ll face this same Nigerian side over on the Island.
And there, Canada will have every incentive to want to build off of what they showed in this game, finding a way to be more ruthless and get the goals they might have felt that they would’ve deserved in this one.
As they continue their journey towards World Cup qualifiers this summer, it’s imperative that they keep finding a way to improve each and every game, so while this match was certainly a good step forward, the next step is to maintain it.
The good news, however? Given their pedigree as Olympic gold medallists, you’d certainly back their ability to do that, so look for them to come out strong on Monday, wrapping up this camp on a high note in front of the Langford faithful.
“We’ve definitely got some objectives in this camp that we want to hit,” Priestman said confidently of this next match.
Up Next: Canada vs Nigeria, Monday, April 11th, 2022, 19:30 PDT, 22:30 EDT (Starlight Stadium, Langford)
Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer