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REIMS — Canada is in unchartered territory having qualified for the second round of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup with a game to spare.
On the two occasions Canada advanced past the group stage in previous World Cups, they needed a result in its final game to book a spot in the second round.
Such is not the case Thursday against the Netherlands here at the Stade Auguste Delaune. Canada needs a victory in order to win the group, but a loss would still have them finishing second and moving on to play the second-place finisher in Group F — either Sweden or the United States — in Paris on Monday.
Yet, there is still plenty to play for against the Netherlands with top spot, an undefeated streak, and shutout string on the line. Winning the group would have Canada facing Japan in Rennes on Tuesday.
“We’re very happy to already be into the knockout stage and how we’re going to approach the game is definitely to win it,” Canada coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller said Wednesday. “Then we’ll see who is coming up then.”
The game against the Netherlands will pit Canada’s vaunted defence against a highly-revered Dutch strike force led by Arsenal striker Vivianne Miedema and featuring Lieke Martens along with Shanice van de Sanden. The trio has 119 international goals between them.
Canada has arguably the best back four in the tournament with Ashley Lawrence, Shelina Zadorsky, Kadeisha Buchanan and Allysha Chapman. Canada has yet to give up a goal in the tournament and have conceded just one goal in its past 10 games.
“Individually, their strikers are all very skilled, but I also think (Netherlands head coach) Sarina Wiegman had put a good team to surround them,” Heiner-Moller said. “It’s not just them individually being very smart forwards. I think as a team they move for each other well on the ball and off the ball. They run some nice patterns for each other.
“We’re definitely aware of them and they are going to get some chances for sure, but it’s making sure to trying to minimize them and making sure we’re defending as close to them as possible.”
Buchanan and van de Sanden are teammates at Olympique Lyonnais in France, the best club team in the world. The two will likely be facing each other directly on Thursday playing for bragging rights.
“Definitely since the groups were announced we’ve been going at it with each other, same for Saki (Kumagai of Japan) and Lucy Bronze (England),” Buchanan said. “We’ve been throwing jabs at each other, but we have the utmost respect for one another and we are just going to play with pride and play for your country. We’re still going to be friends after the game, and during the game, it’ll just be a good matchup.”
Buchanan, 23, controls the heart of the Canadian defence and is playing in her second World Cup. She has become an international star and is among the best one-on-one defenders in the world.
“I was a lot younger in the last World Cup, and I think my experience the last four years has made me better as a player, better as a teammate and in trying to lead the team,” she said. “This time I’m a bit more at the forefront instead of taking more of a backseat at the last World Cup. I think I’m more in tuned with this tournament.”
Buchanan has plenty of talent around her on the back line and the unit takes pride in posting nine shutouts this season. Only Nigeria has been able to score against Canada this year. The African champions scored the first goal in a 2-1 loss to Canada in an exhibition game in Spain this past April.
“I think just the experience we have with each other, we’re a group of girls that come together and communicate very well with each other and we all know each other’s strength and weaknesses,” Buchanan said. “We always play off each other and we always support each other.”
Canada also has one of the best goalkeepers in the world in Stephanie Labbe, who did not see a lot of action in a 1-0 win against Cameroon and a 2-0 victory against New Zealand.
“Communication from behind, Steph is leading us from the back is very key for us,” Buchanan said. “She sees everything and she allows us to read things early because she’s so in the game and communicates so well with us. I think that’s the easy part, we’re just like chess pieces she tells us where to go and we move. I think that’s why we’re so close and so strong.”
With both teams having advanced there are expectations Heiner-Moller and Wiegman may rest some of their starters and give other members of the roster an opportunity to play. Either way, Heiner-Moller is going to enjoy the contest with less stress than the previous two games.
“I think I’m doing a very good job of enjoying every game and I haven’t felt stressed at all,” he said. “I’ve felt excited and I’ve been on my toes, but I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it. Myself, my staff and all the players have prepared almost a year for this so if you’re not ready to enjoy it, you’re in the wrong place.”
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest
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