Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team beat Brazil on penalties on Friday, helping them advance to the semi-finals of the Olympic Soccer Tournament for the 3rd straight edition of that competition. Here’s what stood out to us from that one.
After a quiet game, the fireworks came out right at the end.
Having survived through 120 minutes of tense and dramatic Olympic quarter-final action, Canada Soccer’s Women’s National Team managed to come through when it counted most on Friday, as they managed to outlast Brazil in an intense penalty shootout, punching their ticket to a 3rd straight Olympic semi-final in the process.
Thanks to Stephanie Labbe’s shootout heroics, Canada will now get a chance to play for a medal starting this Sunday, as they look to return to the podium for the 3rd straight edition of this tournament.
Obviously, the goal is to win gold, which will mean taking care of business against the 1st-ranked United States in a pivotal semi-final on Monday, but at the very least, with this win, they’ll get a chance to compete for a 3rd straight bronze medal.
In a rematch of one of the most famous games in Olympic history, the 2012 semi-final that finished 4-3 after extra time between the two North American foes, in a game marred by controversy, Canada will have revenge on their minds Monday, only fuelling their desire to win gold.
With only 3 wins and 7 draws in 62 games against their neighbours from south of the 49th parallel, Canada hasn’t done as well against their rivals as they would’ve liked, making it hard to even describe it as a two-way rivalry, but a win on Monday could change that, and they’re fully aware of that.
But returning to the game itself, what a result it was for Canada, as they did well to manage the match over the course of 90 minutes of regulation time, plus the 30 minutes that were added on, keeping a vital clean sheet, too.
Would they have liked to score a goal in regulation time, ending things earlier and saving their legs? Definitely, but if they keep defending like that, it’ll be hard to knock them out of this tournament, as aside from a few self-inflicted moments of pain, they were nearly impenetrable on Friday.
So even though the tests will only get stiffer from here on in, especially in a formidable final 4 consisting of Australia, Sweden and the aforementioned Americans, Canada now has every reason to believe that this is now their tournament, as this result seemed to give them the sort of confidence they were lacking during the group stage.
But before we look too far ahead, here’s what stood out to us in this game, as Canada once again found some Olympic magic just at the right time.
Teams continue recent quiet form:
While things ended with excitement, it didn’t start that way, as to begin the match, both teams started out quietly, engaging in a feeling-out process of sorts.
For all of the attacking talent that was on display in the match, one could wonder if there’d be goals in this game, but it quickly became clear that would not be the case, as the game quickly turned into a chess match.
Other than small half-chances here and there, mostly off of set-pieces, both teams were unable to find an early breakthrough, making for a cagey affair.
But that’s not a surprise for those who have watched these two teams as of late, because heading into this game, there had not been a goal scored by either side in the last 141 minutes of game action between the two, dating back to earlier this year.
Did anyone expect that streak to extend to 261 minutes on Friday? Probably not, but that’s just how things went down over the course of 120 minutes of action (or lack thereof).
For whatever reason, sensing the offensive capabilities of their opponents, a defence-first has been the name of the game whenever these two teams have met lately, helping create these cagey games.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing for Canada, who tend to thrive in those sorts of games, but it certainly wasn’t a result that was easy on the heartstrings of Canadian fans, who had to sit through some very intense back-and-forth action, with the defence winning every time.
Gilles bounces back nicely in surprise start:
But while Canada would’ve hoped that this game could’ve had a bit more offence, this sort of defensive game proved to be beneficial to a few players, especially those who like to defend.
One of those players for Canada? Vanessa Gilles, who made her 2nd start of the tournament for Canada on Friday.
After a very strong performance against Great Britain in the last game of the group stages on Tuesday, one could only wonder if that’d be enough for her to earn a start in this game, so it was a welcome surprise to see her on the lineup on the back of that performance on Friday.
It was always going to be hard for Canadian head coach Bev Priestman to drop someone like Shelina Zadorsky from the lineup, as she’s always solid at the back for Canada, but having given up a penalty against Chile, and with the performance of Gilles in her place in the last game of the group stages, Priestman clearly saw enough to be confident enough to make the change.
And from there, she proved to be rewarded for that decision, as Gilles came up huge for Canada, as well.
After an early scare that saw her make a giveaway that nearly ended up in the back of her own net, she recovered nicely to put together a strong performance, showing her short memory.
Most impressive about her performance, too? That she managed to have an impact at both ends of the field, too, showing off her versatility.
Offensively, she had a few good looks off of free kicks, including one on a nice cross from Janine Beckie that she turned right onto the woodwork and out, much to the relief of Brazil.
Defensively, she cut out several five-alarm chances, including a few on 1v1s that could’ve easily ended in disaster, showing her strong ability in that area of her game.
So overall, it was a strong performance from Gilles at the heart of Canada’s defence, as she certainly earned a claim for more minutes going forward.
Will she stay in the lineup next game for Canada? Who knows, but coaches don’t like to often tinker with a lineup that works, so it’ll be hard to keep Gilles off of the team sheet after the role she played in Canada’s ability to keep a clean sheet across 120 minutes of action.
Labbe’s penalty heroics:
But once Gilles and company did what they needed to in order to get this game to a shootout, you wondered who would come up big for Canada in spot-kicks.
And the answer would be Stephanie Labbe, their goalkeeper, who had a performance to remember during the penalty shootout on Friday.
After ending extra time on a high note, making a five-alarm save on Brazil’s Erica in the 119th minute that most definitely kept the game alive for Canada right at the death, she then continued that form into the penalty shootout, making 2 huge saves to help Canada win 4-3.
Not only were they huge saves, either, but Labbe’s stops on Andressa and Rafael were clutch, as well, coming at the perfect time for Canada.
Tied 3-3 after Christine Sinclair missed her opening kick, Canada needed a save to close out round 4, because if not, Brazil would’ve been all but through, just needing either a Canadian miss or Brazilian goal in the last round had they gone up 4-3.
But instead, Labbe kept her team in it with a wonderful save, before Vanessa Gilles put her team up 4-3 in Canada’s favour, setting up a dramatic last kick between Rafael and Labbe.
If Rafael were to have scored, she would’ve kept the shootout alive, sending it to sudden death, but Labbe then stepped up huge again, saving another penalty, winning the game for her team.
After a heroic start to the tournament, one where she also saved a penalty, this time in-game, despite carrying a rib injury, it was unsure if we’d even see Labbe again these Olympics, as she then missed Canada’s 2nd game with that aforementioned knock.
Almost miraculously, though, she then recovered in time for their 3rd game of the group stages, and was healthy enough to start this quarter-final, and what a blessing that ended up being for Canada.
So although Kailen Sheridan is a very good goalkeeper, and is very much in the conversation to start games, thanks to Labbe’s performance, it’s hard to imagine her giving up her net again this tournament.
With this being one of her last, if not her last, major tournaments for Canada, though, she’s certainly deserved a chance to ride into the sunset on her own terms, especially based on how big her efforts were to the cause on Friday.
Otherwise, it was a pretty interesting night tactically for Canada once again, as they stuck with the 4-3-1-2, for better or for worse.
And ultimately, considering the result, it was certainly for the better, at least defensively, but on the flip side, some questions can be asked of it offensively.
On one hand, they kept a clean sheet, showing how solid it is defensively, and why Canada will be wise to keep it, because if they keep defending like this, good things will happen.
On the other hand, though, they only generated 2 shots on target across 120 minutes of play, which is nowhere near good enough.
Facing off against an American team who you just feel like will find their way onto the scoresheet on Monday, Canada has to prepare themselves to get into a bit more of a barnburner than their game against Brazil was, especially in a game of this magnitude.
So while Canada has a lot to be happy about with their defence, they’ll have to figure out the best way to attack their opponents on Monday, because if not, it’s hard to imagine the same formula that they used against Brazil working.
Some possible solutions? Playing more of a true front 3, one with a little more speed, starting both Nichelle Prince and Deane Rose. If not, Canada can also try playing Sinclair up front with someone like Jordyn Huitema, Adriana Leon or Evelyne Viens with Janine Beckie in the #10, going for more of a direct approach.
Either way, though, Priestman has got options, which are always nice for a manager to have.
Bring on the US:
Because of that, it’ll be interesting to see what approach Priestman will have for this clash with the US, as they present a certain type of matchup that Canada hasn’t seen much of as of late.
Tactically, they’re a flexible opponent, one that has a variety of shapes and set-ups, allowing them to shift their squad from game to game.
A big part of their ability to do that? Their deep roster, as they’ve got 22 players who could all make a claim to start on any given day, giving head coach Vlatko Andonovski all sorts of lineup possibilities to tinker around with.
That’s been evident throughout this tournament, as the US has avoided running with a set lineup, electing to make changes here and there before matches.
So fresh off of a big victory over a strong Netherlands side in the quarter-finals, one where they weathered an early Dutch storm to win on penalties, they’re a formidable test for this Canadian team.
The good news for Canada, though?
The US has looked about as beatable as ever this tournament, having lost their opening game of the competition to Sweden, before drawing with Australia in their last game of the group stages.
For Canada, that’s huge, because even though they’ll be in tough against the Americans given their past history against them, they’ve got as good of a chance as any at finally toppling their rivals in this game.
Now, Canada will get right into preparations for this US match, allowing them to be as ready as possible come Monday.
Having made it this far, despite many predictions that they’d struggle to do so, they do really have a chance of doing what they set out to do, which is to change the colour of their medal, but they’ve got some work to do if they’re to do that.
As they showed in this game, though, when they believe, and are executing at the top of their game, good things can happen, especially against top opposition.
So even if they’re getting set to play some true, top-tier opposition, they’ll have no reason to fear them as much as they used to, and this solid performance against Brazil is a big part of that.
It might not have been the most exciting win, but Canada got the job done, which sometimes in tournament environments, is all you can ever ask for.
As we’ve seen, Canada’s made a habit of that in past Olympic tournaments, and they’ll look to continue that on Sunday, when they look to create history once again up against some familiar foes.
Up Next: Canada vs United States, Monday, August 2nd, 2021, 1:00 AM PDT, 4:00 AM EDT (Kashima Stadium, Kashima)