Canada leapfrogs Panama in World Cup qualifying after Alphonso Davies takes charge


Canadian soccer fans were treated to a show at BMO Field on Wednesday night.

The star? Who else.

Alphonso Davies reminded every person tuned into Canada’s 4-1 World Cup qualification win over Panama, why, at 20 years old, he is one of the best players in the world, and the best to ever represent the men’s national team.

Canada could very well be present at Qatar 2022, and every World Cup in the foreseeable future, as long as the kid who calls Edmonton home is in the lineup.

Wednesday night’s match, the last of this international window but Canada’s first at home this month, was, by all accounts, a must-win, on home soil against a Panamanian team that sat one point ahead of them in the standings coming in, a loose grip on the third and final automatic qualification berth for Qatar 2022 that could have turned into a much firmer hold if the visitors walked away with a victory.

A “sucker punch,” according to Canadian coach John Herdman, less than five minutes into the game made for an even bigger mountain for the Canadians to climb. A Panamanian counter attack down the right wing that saw the visitors give and go their way around midfielder Stephen Eustáquio and defender Kamal Miller, among others, ended in a tap-in goal for Rolando Blackburn and an early lead for the opposition.

“I thought it was a good chess match but at no point did I ever feel Canada were going to lose that game … a couple of nervy moments but I’ve said to these guys, ‘We can tolerate some nervy moments,’ ” Herdman said.

It was as if the goal stoked a fire in Davies, who instantly took the team on his back. Such leadership was needed on a night when things easily could have become too emotional, as Canada battled an opponent engaging in tactics all too typical of this region — long injury stoppages, fighting, throwing balls away — and a referee who missed at least one penalty call against Panama, if not more.

“Everyone was locked in, everyone wanted to be on the pitch … The mindset that was on the pitch was really strong,” Davies said.

Davies lit a fire under his teammates when needed, like minutes after the goal when fellow striker Jonathan David chose passing over shooting after Davies played him into the box alone. The next time Davies played David in? David forced a save from Panamanian goalkeeper Luis Mejia and earned the Canadians a corner.

Corner kicks were Canada’s bread and butter in the first half, and Davies was the one to deliver. It was his kick that landed on Tajon Buchanan’s head in the 29th minute, before deflecting off Panama’s Michael Murillo for an own goal to level the score.

Before Davies would go on to score Canada’s winner, he showed that he’s more than just a playmaker and a goal scorer. He went after every ball, no matter how much ground he needed to cover to get there or how much of his body he needed to throw at it. He stood up for his teammates, finding himself at the centre of a benches-clearing scuffles between the two squads near halftime.

The pièce de résistance came in the 66th minute. Davies was dozens of yards behind Harold Cummings when he began what would be a game-changing sprint in his own half. The Panamanian defender tried to see a rolling ball out of bounds, but Davies snuck in between Cummings and the sideline, using some deft footwork to keep the ball in play. He drove straight into the Panamanian box, cutting inside of defender Fidel Escobar and slashing a shot just inside the near post.

Canada was ahead.

Buchanan and David added a goal each before the night was done, but Wednesday was all about Davies, who received a standing ovation when he was substituted off in the 81st minute and spent half an hour post-match signing autographs for fans at BMO Field. The victory he commandeered moved Canada back into third place in the standings, where the team will hope to remain until this final round of qualification wraps up next March.

It was a world-class effort by a world-class player, securing points that might just land this country at the World Cup next year.

It also landed Davies a text from Drake, according to Herdman, who has also seemingly taken note of the youngster’s desire.

“He wants this bad,” Herdman said. “He really wants this. He’s dreaming of taking this team to a World Cup.”

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