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LARSON

Canada draws Netherlands, advances to Round of 16

By Kurt Larson, Toronto Sun

Canada forward Christine Sinclair heads the ball as Netherlands’ Mandy Van Den Berg defends during last night’s 1-1 draw. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

Canada forward Christine Sinclair heads the ball as Netherlands’ Mandy Van Den Berg defends during last night’s 1-1 draw. (USA TODAY SPORTS)

MONTREAL - 

Tough to beat, but tough to be beaten by. That’s Canada’s mantra at this World Cup.

The fact a disappointing 1-1 draw against the Dutch saw Canada finish atop Group A on Monday night is inconsequential.

Canada should have done better here in front of 45,420 at Olympic Stadium.

It should have shown more throughout this three-game group stage.

It should have put Monday’s game out of reach well before Kirsten Van de Ven found an equalizer in the dying moments.

Instead, the Canadians were forced to pull out their happy faces as they sluggishly made their way around the Big O post-game, applauding the scarce number of fans who hadn’t yet vacated.

“I think the team are having a great time,” head coach John Herdman said post-game, adding his side were “happy” with their performances.

It didn’t seem like it.

When the team arrived back at the bench after thanking Montreal support, Christine Sinclair, the team’s leader, slammed a water bottle against the turf. Her teammates stared awkwardly into space following another draw that felt like a defeat.

When it looked like Ashley Lawrence’s opener 10 minutes in would hold up as the game-winner, Canada’s defence was ripped wide open by a pass that slipped Van de Ven along along the right edge of the penalty area.

Two touches later, Canadian support here at the Big O fell silent when the Dutch attacker beat an onrushing Erin McLeod to potentially send the Dutch through as Group A’s third-place finisher.

“The Dutch were pretty good tonight,” Herdman said. “Their front four were good. Our back four were resolute at times.

“All and all, we’re top of the group. We’d love to have nine (points), but job done. We’re happy.”

There’s that word again. Happy.

What happened here Monday night, though, would have been unbelievable had you told the neutral viewer this match would end in a draw, with the Dutch pushing for a game-winner in the final minutes.

Not after Canada controlled the match through the first hour of the proceedings.

When the Dutch defence failed to deal with a cross from Sophie Schmidt 10 minutes in, there was Lawrence at the six-yard-box, the ball teasing fans with an open goal metres away.

Lawrence took a few long strides before slamming the ball past a sprawling Dutch ’keeper. Her joyous screams weren’t audible, but here expression was. She looked at herself on the big screen as she sprinted towards Canada’s bench.

At that point, it felt like more goals were coming after Canada had been held goalless from the run of play through the first two games.

The hosts were controlling the tempo. They were controlling possession. It appeared they’d run away with it.

“I’m really proud of those young players,” Herdman said of Lawrence, Kadeiha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming. “In that atmosphere, you either sink or swim. That’s the future on display.”

The problem this tournament, though, has been the present and, maybe, the past.

Canada’s “best” players — Sinclair, Schmidt and Rhian Wilkinson — haven’t been Canada’s best players.

Sinclair’s frustration was evident post-game.

“Whenever she does anything, you can see she’s absolutely world class,” Herdman said of Sinclair, who hasn’t scored from the run of play this tournament.

“We’ve challenged every player to step up to Sinclair’s level. There has to be new Sinclairs.”

But the blame Monday night was undoubtedly shared. Herdman held his hand up post-game due to at least one of his second-half substitutions.

The tides completely turned late in the second half when Canada changed players.

The Dutch came close to equalizing with a little over a half-hour remaining. A long diagonal was laid back to Vivianne Miedema at the penalty spot before her half-volley attempt flew over Erin McLeod’s goal.

Minutes later, the Netherlands’ Danielle Van de Donk, amid a three-on-two break, was played in along the right edge of the area before missing her attempt at the near post.

The Netherlands, in need of at least a point to potentially advance, forced McLeod into action for the first time all game with five minutes remaining when Manon Melis latched onto a ball clipped in behind Canada’s Wilkinson.

McLeod, though, stoned the breakaway.

“If I’ve made a mistake tonight, that would be the one,” Herdman said of bringing on Wilkinson at fullback.

Eventually, the chaos across Canada’s defensive setup broke for good, leading to the final 1-1 scoreline.

In any other World Cup, Canada wouldn’t top its group playing at its current level.

Instead, it will head to Vancouver next while awaiting a third-place finisher in the Round of 16.

“You can’t take anyone for granted, that’s the key,” Herdman said. “That’s what this tournament is starting to tell people.”

Results like Monday night’s are starting to say something about Canada’s chances, too. 

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