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Another Canadian game day already? Didn't we just leave this party?
Ah, but this is the senior team we're talking about. And while yesterday, the young boys managed an utterly unconvincing but completely crucial 2-1 win against a country that isn't even a country, today the old men face a fairly good adversary on neutral ground with nothing at stake except pride, a few points in the FIFA rankings, and of course the hopes and dreams of an entire nation.
It's probably worse for Belarus. On March 26 the Belorussians lost 1-0 to Albania (Albania) in European Championships qualifying on a goal by Hamdi Salihi. Imagine what the gloom and angst will be like there if they lose to Canada, of all teams; that's like getting beaten at basketball by the Seven Dwarves. Playing far closer to their home, with doubtless a few die-hard national supporters making the trip into Turkey, Belarus will be looking for a result and not taking any excuses. Meanwhile, Canada seems determined: every press clipping from camp says that the team is feeling more focused and in better shape than ever. But, not-withstanding our hopes that we finally get real victories instead of just moral ones against these UEFA opponents, if we get run off the field 3-0 it'll suck but that's it. Within a week we'll have forgotten about it.
So, yeah, the pressure's all on the other guy for once! What a relief!
Canada still better go out and win, though, or there'll be hell to pay.
Now, this isn't to say I'll be happy with a Canada loss. The 2011 Gold Cup is fast approaching and Canada is running out of games. There are rumours of a June 1 friendly at BMO Field, but this may be Canada's last friendly against a marquee opponent before the big competition starts. We played 45 minutes of our best soccer against Ukraine, we played decently but not exceptionally against Greece, it's time we came out and put together a full ninety against Belarus.
As ever, though, the national team hasn't made it easy on themselves. This is a strong team but it's not our best possible team. Our best possible team wouldn't have the hapless Rob Friend on it: not to beat a dead horse, but Friend turned thirty in February and if he hasn't figured out how to score internationally now he's bloody well never going to. Even the old canard of "well, he scores for his club team" is no longer true; Friend can't get off the bench for 2. Bundesliga Hertha BSC. Ali Gerba would have been a better choice, of course, but Gerba turned down the invitation to concentrate on pre-season training with the Montreal Impact. We have Simeon Jackson and Tosaint Ricketts available as well, but based on recent history Stephen Hart is going to chuck Friend's useless ass back out there.
We also get to experience the return of Paul Stalteri. I say "return" even though he never really left: he was left off the initial roster for the Greece friendly but added as an injury replacement since he was very, very available. He didn't wind up playing in the match; the only un-used substitute apart from an injured Lars Hirschfeld. So I figured that was his swan song unless he found his legs with a club again. Farewell, Paul, and thanks for all the oh you're back. Was he, once again, the only player Hart could get? Say what you will about Stalteri's fitness these days, but you know that he'll always show up, he can fill in at a few positions without embarrassing himself, and he will absolutely give you an honest effort every time. If he's willing to sit on the bench unless needed, I can think of worse players to have around the team, but still, it's an odd blast from the past for a lineup that should be looking forward.
A more welcome blast from the past is Mike Klukowski. We haven't seen Kluko, unanimously hailed as one of our best players, since the 2009 Gold Cup. Since then he's found a new club in Turkey and established himself once again as a first-rate left back. Given the struggles Adam Straith experienced covering the position against Greece, it's save to say Klukowski could have been the difference between a loss and a draw in that game. There are no other real surprises along the back line except for the inclusion of Andre Hainault and the exclusion of Dejan Jakovic. That has an innocent explanation, though: Canada's been calling on Jakovic heavily in the past twelve months whereas Hainault has gotten fewer chances despite being fairly equivalent players. Hart probably felt he owed Hainault a look (and owed DC United a break from losing a starting centre back again).
This Canadian team is better defensively than it is going forward, but luckily Belarus has a few weaknesses at the back. None of their goalkeepers have much international experience; normal national starter Yuri Zhevnov is not on this roster. Their defense is fairly experienced while mostly under the age of thirty and is considered a major part of their team, but is by no means implacable. Four of their defenders play in the Russian Premier League and two more in the Belarussian league, but perhaps only Siarhei Amelyanchuk is considered a leading player (though there are some, such as 24-year-old Igor Shitov, who are well on their way).
Meanwhile, up front, Belarus has little enough scoring. Their most dangerous all-round offensive thread is probably midfielder Timofei Kalachev out of FC Rostov. Top scorer Vyacheslav Hleb is a well-known name but has scored only 12 times in 41 attempts for his country: not exactly Ali Gerba. Blackpool's Sergei Kornilenko and Hleb's Minsk teammate Leonid Kovel are both relatively minor factors.
Not to talk Belarus down too far. Man-for-man, they are better than Canada, with a preponderance of the team playing in the increasingly strong Russian Premier Division. But it's not an overwhelming superiority; not as great as the one Greece, for example, enjoyed over us. Belarus has some good depth and a few neat players but nobody who can really break the game open. If Josh Simpson or Simeon Jackson get their head, we might snatch a goal and then who knows?
This game is more about the performance than the result. Still, Canada. Get a result.