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As we know, Canada needs a win or a draw against Costa Rica to clinch first place in Group A and (probably) avoid a semi-final against the United States and their FIFA 12-esque +27 goal differential to determine who goes to the 2012 London Olympics.
The "or a draw" in that sentence sticks in my craw. Talking about drawing Costa Rica in a tournament where the favourites have humbled the minnows so utterly that even I get bored is insulting. It's insulting to the fans who pack one half of the lower bowl of BC Place to cheer on our world-class national team, and it's an insult to that world-class national team which has never looked anything but vastly superior to the Costa Ricans.
Costa Rica should not be able to run with Canada and that's the end of it. They played Cuba depressingly evenly despite the advantage of the Cubans actually playing soccer against them. They could have drawn with Haiti had luck been on the Haitians' side. Their tournament results suggest that Costa Rica is generally consistent against lower opposition but Canada, at their best, should be able to brush them away like a mosquito.
The only concern is "at their best". Canada will enjoy a nice three-day rest before Friday's semi-final, but with either the tricky Mexicans or the devilish Americans in store John Herdman may take no chances. Visions of more off-days and early nights for core players dance through my head, and if we make things a bit too easy for Costa Rica then their tenacious bunker will catch us with our pants down, they might even snatch a goal on a defensive miscue, and all of a sudden we're dead.
It's a long shot, but as a Canadian fan worrying about long shots is my raison d'etre.
The Costa Ricans are not without resources. Entering the tournament I highlighted midfielder Shirley Cruz, their most consistent player and only one in a strong overseas league. However, Wendy Acosta has been the surprise of the tournament. Wearing the #20 shirt, Acosta's been playing a free role as a sort of withdrawn forward and has gotten results, scoring three goals including a beauty in the second half of the Haiti game. She's scored with her head and with her left foot, and she's a little quick too. The pre-tournament rosters listed her as a defender; so much for that.
Compared to a Christine Sinclair or maybe even a Melissa Tancredi, Acosta's not exactly a dynamo. But the 19-year-old is the strongest offensive player Canada's seen so far in this tournament and, if Cruz finds her scoring boots again, the Costa Ricans will present a fair one-two punch against a defense that's had nothing to do for 180 minutes.
Acosta aside, Costa Rica has been happy to slow the game down in both their games so far. Their players milk injuries and dwell on the ball when they can get away with it. I'd be astonished to see them show much offense. It's true that Costa Rica has nothing to lose and everything to gain by opening up, but that's what I said about Cuba on Saturday and look where that got us. For Costa Rica, a team that's defensive by temperament, there's no way they're going to duke it out with Canada's big guns.
My ideal Canadian game would see us start our best defensive line to guard against catastrophe and give Sinclair 45 minutes, win or draw, to get a couple of goals in. Frankly, if Canada goes up by two or three early I wouldn't even let Sinclair finish the half. Sophie Schmidt told me that the Canadian coaching staff has set a number of minutes that they'd prefer each player to see during the second half; under the circumstances I'd personally err towards conservatism.
Remember that the worst possible scenario is not a loss. It's Canada playing their hearts out, getting a well-deserved victory at the cost of player fatigue, then not being ready for the semi-final. Worse, not being ready for a semi-final against the Americans, as they may look to rest some starters (most of whom have started both games so far) and bring an upset loss to Mexico into play.
We can't take Costa Rica for granted. But Canada will also need to be at their very best to defeat Mexico and qualify for the Olympics, and they'll have to be above their very best to defeat the Americans. Play it safe, Herdman. If we lose tonight I'll definitely blame you, but you'll still be right.
Elsewhere in Group A: Haiti and Cuba face off in the afternoon game to determine who will be last and who will merely be irrelevant. This is a friendly, although hopefully an exciting one between two reasonably even teams. Previous results suggest Haiti is slightly Cuba's better but it's not a sure thing. Cuba plays brutal negative soccer but may open up against a near-equal with no stakes, while Haiti's style is actually reasonably attractive. I have hopes for an entertaining game and will be backing the Haitians hard.