PARIS — Despite a somewhat deflating loss to the Netherlands to wrap up the preliminary round, Canada still has everything to play for at the Women’s World Cup.
The fifth-ranked Canadians remain in the more hospitable side of the draw. And they are confident they can make the necessary adjustments ahead of Monday’s round-of-16 date with ninth-ranked Sweden in Paris.
“We know we’re still in this race, in this hunt, and we’re going to give it our all for that round of 16,” said midfielder Desiree Scott, the most combative of the Canadians.
There is no more margin for error, however. Another stumble against Sweden and it’s time to go home.
The Canadians looked out of sorts in the first half of the 2-1 loss Thursday to the eighth-ranked Dutch in Reims. And they paid for defensive lapses in the second half.
“It took us a little bit too long to get our footing in the game,” said captain Christine Sinclair. “They started very strong. We definitely didn’t. You do that in the knockout rounds, you might be down two goals and the game’s over.”
A porous Canada found itself losing its shape and reacting rather than creating as the Dutch took control, probing and pulling at the Canadian defence. Slow, frantic, flat, lacking, hurried and not on the same page are just some of the words the Canadian players used to describe their first-half performance.
“They were just able to do things against us that we haven’t let happen not just this tournament, I’d say this whole year,” Sinclair said.
That’s worrying. But Sinclair insists her team will learn from its mistakes as it steps into the deep waters of the tournament knockout stage.
In recent months, Canada has relied on a solid defence to cover up a lack of clinical finishing up front. Poor defending against a quality Dutch attack dug a hole that the Canadians were unable to pull themselves out of despite career goal No. 182 from the remarkable Sinclair.
For the first time in a while, the Canadian backline looked fragile.
The Swedes blanked No. 39 Chile 2-0 and defeated No. 34 Thailand 5-1 before losing 2-0 to the Americans on Thursday.
Canada is 5-12-3 all-time against Sweden although it is 3-2-3 over the last eight meetings dating back to November 2011. The teams tied 0-0 last time out in March at the Algarve Cup.
“Sweden’s a world-class team that shows up for tournaments. Let’s put it that way,” said Sinclair. “World Cups, Olympics, they always seem to be in the mix come the end of the tournament.”
Since 1996, the Swedes have placed sixth, sixth, fourth, sixth, seventh and second at the Olympics — they lost 2-1 to Germany on an 82nd-minute own goal in the 2016 final at Rio. They have made it to the quarterfinals or better in five of their seven previous trips to the World Cup — finishing third in 1991, runner-up in 2003 (when they beat Canada 2-1 in the semifinals) and third in 2011.
The other side of the draw features the top-ranked Americans, No. 3 England, No. 4 France, No. 6 Australia and No. 10 Brazil. No. 2 Germany, No. 7 Japan, No. 8 Netherlands and No. 9 Sweden are the top-ranked teams in Canada’s half.
Should the Canadians get past Sweden, they will face the Germany-Nigeria winner. Had they won Group E, they would have met Japan next and likely avoided the Germans until the semifinals.
As group winners, the Dutch slot into the most benign quarter of the draw. The Netherlands-Japan winner will take on either No. 15 Italy or No. 16 China in the quarterfinals.
Coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller downplayed the tournament bracket while offering up two different routes his team could take.
“I think tonight showed that if we’re not (playing) our best, we can definitely lose to some of the teams left in the tournament. But I know if we play to our best, we can beat everyone,” he said.
Sinclair added to her legacy Thursday, joining Brazil’s Marta as the only player to score at five World Cups.
“(I’m) just proud. Obviously to be up there with Marta is a huge honour,” said the 36-year-old from Burnaby, B.C., who is now just three goals from surpassing Abby Wambach’s world-record goal total of 184.
“I’m proud of the longevity of my career and my ability to change and adapt and grow with the game. And that I can still have an impact and bury some goals. But we lost.”
In typical fashion, when asked about her goal, Sinclair cited an “absolutely world-class ball” from fullback Ashley Lawrence. She also noted that the entire team needed to defend better. on the day.
Despite giving up goals in the 54th and 75 minute, the Canadians took solace in their second-half performance against the Dutch.
“We created some good stuff in the second half,” said Scott.
“We pushed well at the end. The players who came on the pitch (substitutes Adriana Leon, Jayde Riviere and Rebecca Quinn) did a really good job. They brought a lot of energy,” added forward Janine Beckie.
“The team you saw in the second half was definitely more us,” said Sinclair.
Heiner-Moller was less effusive, saying the Canadians were “a little bit better in the second half.”
Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press