Canada wasted little time Sunday ending its scoring drought at the men’s World Cup via Alphonso Davies but could not hold off Croatia, losing 4-1 to end its hopes of reaching the tournament’s knockout round.
Ranked 12th in the world and runner-up to France four years ago in Russia, Croatia is filled with talent from top clubs and its class showed in rallying from an early 1-0 deficit.
Two goals by Andrej Kramaric and one by Marko Livaja accounted for the Croatian comeback. Lovro Majer added a stoppage-time goal in the 94th minute on a two-on-none attack.
The 41st-ranked Canadians started with a bang with a Milan Borjan goal kick finding Cyle Larin at midfield. Larin controlled the ball deftly with his foot and sent it over to Tajon Buchanan down the right flank. Buchanan surged ahead, took two touches, lifted his head and sent in a cross that Davies, soaring through the air high above fullback Josip Juranovic, headed home past goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic.
The tac-tac-toe goal came just 67 seconds into the match. But it was actually 36 years in the making — a goal worthy of Canada’s first at the men’s soccer showcase. Davies’ teammates mobbed the 22-year-old from Edmonton by the corner flag and the entire country celebrated.
Perhaps a little too soon.
It marked Davies’ 13th goal for Canada — and the first with his head — in 36 appearances. And it no doubt helped make up for his missed penalty in the Canadians’ opening 1-0 loss to No. 2 Belgium.
But Croatia regains its composure and, using its precision, took over the midfield and began to open up the Canadian defence — scoring twice to lead 2-1 at the break.
But for a while, it was all Canada with the Canadians in the crowd of 44,374 chanting “this is our house” after the Davies goal.
Davies was feeling it, nutmegging Inter Milan’s Marcelo Brozovic in the 22nd minute as the Canadians stroked the ball around the immaculate pitch at the Khalifa International Stadium.
Then the tide turned.
Kramaric tied it in the 36th minute, taking a pass from Ivan Perisic that went through Alistair Johnston’s legs. The Hoffenheim forward then cooly beat Borjan, from an acute angle, with a well-placed left-footed shot to the corner of goal.
Mateo Kovacic had a hand in the goal, faking out Stephen Eustaquio to make room for the pass to Perisic.
Livaja put Croatia ahead in the 44th minute after a slashing run by Juranovic carved open the Canadian defence. The Croatian right back beat Davies to start his run and, after a fortunate bounce in traffic, slotted the ball between Steven Vitoria’s legs to Livaja, whose shot went past the outstretched arm of a diving Borjan.
Kramaric made it 3-1 in the 70th minute, elegantly shifting the ball away from Kamal Miller to make room for a left-footed shot through Canadian captain Atiba Hutchinson’s legs. Tottenham’s Perisic again played provider.
The Croatian fans sang while the Canadians watched quietly.
The Canadians came into the contest — the first-ever meeting between the two countries — needing at least a point to keep alive their hope of advancing out of the group stage with coach John Herdman calling it “one of those do-or-die games.”
Croatia also needed a result after tying Morocco 0-0 in its opener.
The Canadians will go home after wrapping up tournament play Thursday against Morocco — which will mark their first-ever World Cup game against a non-European opponent. They will hope to leave on a winning note.
The stadium echoed with “O Canada,” with the Canadian section in the stands belting out the lyrics. And Davies quickly turned up the volume.
Trailing 1-0, Croatia thought it had tied the game in the 26th minute when Kramaric scored, only to see the offside flag go up for a move in the buildup. Borjan then got his body in the way of a Livaja shot.
Croatia outshot Canada 5-1 (4-1 in shots on target) in the first half.
Herdman sent on Jonathan Osorio and Ismael Kone to start the second half replacing Larin and Eustaquio, who had taken a knock in the first half. Davies left the midfield to join Jonathan David up front.
Osorio came close minutes later with a curling shot that beat the ‘keeper but flashed wide. At the other end, Borjan came up big to deny Kramaric.
Junior Hoilett was sent on to add to the Canadian attack, with the defence shifting to a back three. Burly forward Lucas Cavallini came on later as Herdman rolled the dice.
Hutchinson marked his 100th appearance for Canada.
The 39-year-old from Brampton, Ont., is the oldest outfield player at the tournament and the second-oldest ever to feature at the World Cup finals after Cameroon’s Roger Milla (42 years 29 days in 1994). The veteran midfielder made his senior debut for Canada in January 2003.
Hutchinson, who captains Besiktas in Turkey, took his lumps in the game with cotton wool stuffed up his nose in the second half to stop bleeding.
While Hutchinson holds the Canadian men’s caps record, Christine Sinclair is Canada’s all-time leader in national team appearances with 319.
Canada went into the game winless in its last 13 matches against UEFA opponents (0-8-5) dating back to a 1-0 win over Belarus in March 2011.
Croatia, meanwhile, came into the match having lost just one its last 17 outings (11-1-5). The Croats were beaten 3-0 by Austria in June in UEFA Nations League play a loss they avenged in September in a 3-1 win.
The Canada-Croatia game was played against a backdrop of friction in the wake of Herdman’s emotional post-game message to his players following the Belgium loss.
Asked in a pitch-side interview what he had said in a post-game huddle, Herdman replied: “I told them they belong here and we’re going to go and eff—- Croatia. That’s as simple as it gets.”
That sparked an immediate response from Croatian tabloids and a stern lecture Saturday from Croatian coach Zlatko Dalic about the need for respect.
Herdman maintained his message to the players was were simply “to remind them that there’s another task ahead.” And he was quick to compliment Croatia, calling it a “top top top top football team.”
But the damage had been done. Perhaps fittingly, Canada wore all black Sunday.
Herdman made one change to his starting lineup with Larin coming in for Hoilett, and switched to a 4-4-2 formation.
Borjan, who plays his club football for Red Star Belgrade in Serbia, started in goal behind a backline of Richie Laryea, Vitoria, Miller and Johnston.
Hutchinson, Eustaquio, Davies and Buchanan were in the midfield behind David and Larin.
The Croatian roster features eight players with previous World Cup experience including star midfielder Luka Modric, appearing in his third tournament.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press