Canada walked into BC Place last night expected to beat the Costa Ricans and instead, they kicked the holy hell out of them. Don't let Fernanda Barrantes's pride-salvaging goal in garbage time fool you: this was Canada's game from kickoff until they decided not to worry about it.
Another brace from Christine Sinclair (ho-hum) plus a few fine defensive plays in the second half (what?). Kaylyn Kyle and Sophie Schmidt finally got the monkeys off their backs by trundling in blue-collar goals after frittering away chances in the first two games, and there was even an embarrassing own goal for good measure. Canada romped through the game then took their foot off the gas pedal, conserving energy and secure in the knowledge that the Costa Ricans would never get enough. Barrantes's goal was excellent, but it was just one in a sequence.
Did that game answer your questions? Canada handled the Costa Ricans and got goals from a variety of players. Sinclair was the maestro, of course, but both Schmidt and Kyle deserve loads of credit. Kelly Parker and Christina Julien also had good chances while Brittany Timko had a goal called back offside by an eyelash. There was a good team effort which was not perfect but all the same was at a very high calibre.
Before the tournament, John Herdman said goal number one was to finish top of the group. Done. Goal number two awaits: a semi-final match against the loser of tonight's United States - Mexico tilt. That almost certainly means Mexico, who are on good form and will give Canada a tough time. But Big Red will be favourites, and they just put in a performance worthy of it.
The greatest fitness concern surrounds Christine Sinclair, not out of knowledge but out of bloody-minded paranoia. Sinclair has played 225 minutes in five days while Canada has racked up a +12 goal differential. With two days of rest coming up, that's not a killer pace but it doesn't seem ideal for our leading player: Sophie Schmidt, Melissa Tancredi, Candace Chapman, and other core outfield players have seen fewer minutes and Canada certainly didn't need Sinclair past around the half-hour mark yesterday.
John Herdman seemed unconcerned, stating repeatedly and with great confidence that the bodOf cy will restore its glycogen within 96 hours and that therefore, with proper care and attention, Sinclair and the rest of Canada will be ready to go by semi-final time. This seems more like a rule of thumb to me than actual science and I deplore relying on rules of thumb. Even if Herdman's right, we'll certainly be playing Sinclair's blood out on Friday and then, most likely, asking her to do the same thing again in a Sunday final against the Americans: there'd be no stakes in a Sunday game except for an entire country willing Canada to win. The more fuel in the tank, the better, and yesterday Canada had nothing to lose.
Herdman is playing his cards close to his vest. He didn't take Sinclair off but he did have her, and the rest of the girls, deliberately slowing down play. Sinclair was playing further back in a linking midfield role and not making her usual dramatic runs in the second half, preferring to move the ball quickly instead of consuming energy late. She wasn't alone in this; again, why he didn't just take her out I don't know. Herdman has repeatedly said that Sinclair hates coming out of games, but that's true for most players. The other point is that the Canadian staff had prepared guidelines for the number of minutes each player could get to keep them fit for the semi-final; presumably Sinclair was just being played up to her limit but, again, I would have been conservative. It's not like Sinclair's a little slow and needs to play her way into shape; she's kicking ass out there.
Of course, Canada has one huge advantage over whichever one of the United States or Mexico it is: the extra twenty-four hours rest. Isn't it nice to have CONCACAF's barely-disguised pandering to ticket sales playing to our advantage for once? I can't even pretend that 50% more rest compared to their semi-final opponent is fair; the Canadian coaches and players were smiling when asked about it. It's just like how Canada was given the late semi-final game on Friday even before the matchups were known; as soon as Canada qualified it was known they played in the evening and Costa Rica in the afternoon. It's good to be host.
I have my worries about the surprisingly improved Mexican attack: they've faced very poor defenses so far, but such quality wide play and the team generating chances even when Maribel Dominguez isn't involved is a far cry from the Mexico of 2009. While they haven't got much chance of pulling up stakes against the Americans tonight it'll still be interesting to see how they get on: if Mexico pushes forward and gets some scoring opportunities then it's a bad sign for our somewhat erratic fullback combo of Rhian Wilkinson and Melanie Booth.
That, however, is dwelling on a small negative rock in a sea of gemstones. Canada hasn't done everything they could do but remain in a good position and should be favourites for Olympic qualification.