Live on Sportsnet One and sportsnet.ca, tape-delayed across Sportsnet regional networks (check local listings)
Unusually for a game day thread, it's not actually game day. But since this game kicks off at seven A.M. Wednesday morning, I have nothing to apologize for. Instead, I'll simply give the only senior Canadian national soccer team that isn't on strike a slightly early write-up.
I'm not sure why I'm bothering, though, since... well, it's not like there's anything for me to be my usual optimistic self about. How badly are we going to lose this dog? My goodness, where do I start?!?
Our defense lost Kevin McKenna, Marcel de Jong, and arguably Nik Ledgerwood since a few of us, including myself, were slotting him in at right back. Our injury replacements for these three key players were Adrian Cann, Paul Stalteri, and the giant fork sticking out of Paul Stalteri's back. Our team was reasonably strong to begin with but not nearly strong enough to contend with the Greeks. They're ranked tenth in the world, after all, which may be twenty spots too high but is still a damned sight better than Canada. They've actually qualified for the World Cup twice; we've only got in once! Although we are tied on one continental championship apiece, the Greeks are far better. Everybody knows it.
Yet. (You knew there'd be a "yet".)
Our defense is weak, but the Greek forwards aren't exactly a punishing lot. They have a combined haul of 25 international goals, of which 13 come from 35-year-old Nikos Liberpoulous. Only one midfielder and one forward play outside the Greek leagues: forward Georgios Samaras plays with Celtic and midfielder Panagiotis Kane (he of one senior cap) with Brescia. That's not a murderer's row. Frankly, I was more spooked of Ukraine's scoring power and Stalteri looked after himself alright there.
In goal, neither Kostas Chalikas nor Michalis Sifakis are all-world. And the Greek defense, just as their reputation declares, is very very good. Only Loukas Vyntra is over twenty-nine years old and only Nikos Spiropoulos is under six feet tall. They have every advantage over the relatively mediocre Canadian strike force. They're more than good enough to grind us to a 0-0 draw.
Wait. Grind us to a 0-0 draw? Canada? In Greece? And all we need is one quick break from Atiba Hutchinson or Josh Simpson (either one of whom, frankly, would be the best attacking player in the Greek arsenal) to potentially turn the game on its head? Oh my god, maybe I have hope after all.
The genius of playing Greece is not that we're likely to win. We're not, of course. Frankly I think a draw is our best likely outcome (and the betting houses are currently carrying odds of Greece 1.50, draw 4.00, Canada 6.50, so a draw bet would look awfully good to me if I had any money). The genius is that, first of all, it's a game we're likely to keep close, second that they're a better team than us which will give our nats valuable practice, and third that the reward hugely outweighs the risk.
Remember the way FIFA rankings work. You get FIFA ranking points for beating or drawing an opponent. More if they're a highly-ranked opponent, more still if they're in a strong confederation, and yet more if you're on the road when you do it. Greece is ranked number ten in the world, which is very high indeed. But nobody pretends they're actually the tenth-best team on the planet: in short, the game is disproportionately easy for the number of ranking points available. If we get a draw against Greece it would mean far more than the draw against Ukraine even if the two teams are relatively similar.
The most important reason to build our FIFA ranking is to make sure we're one of the eight best-ranked teams in CONCACAF when the World Cup qualifying groups are drawn, ensuring that we get a relatively easy opening round draw. Much better to break into qualifying against the likes of St. Vincent and the Grenadines than, I don't know, Honduras. Friendlies only matter so much in the FIFA rankings, and we suffer the serious disadvantage of not playing any Gold Cup qualifying matches unlike our fellow CONCACAF minnows. But every little bit helps.
Now, if we lose, we don't get anything. And for all my optimism I think we probably will. But this is the perfect opponent for Canada: better, and more than enough to challenge us, but not so good that we have no chance of a result. That Argentina friendly last year was just a whooping. This isn't likely to be as bad, unless things go really wrong. Worst-case scenario, we get to see if Dwayne De Rosario can keep his discipline and be a team player against a world-class defense, how well Atiba Hutchinson handles being the alpha dog, if Josh Simpson is just a flash in the pan or is the real deal, and just who Milan Borjan is. Best-case scenario, we get one of those results that lives forever.
In a match like this, Canada really can't lose. Even if we do.