While the pressure is on Canada to get points from its match with Croatia on Sunday to maintain any chance of advancing to the World Cup, defender Alistair Johnston says the Canadian men are not upset.
The Canadians find themselves in a hole at the bottom of Group F after their 1-0 loss against Belgium on Wednesday. Another defeat will end their chances of making it to the knockout round.
Johnston says 41st-ranked Canada is up to the challenge.
“We know wherever we play here, we’re going to have an incredible Canadian crowd,” he said after practice on Friday. “We know we can play at this level. We know the moment is not too great. I think having that in our back pocket now after playing in that opening game against Belgium has only helped the squad.
“I mean the morale is incredibly high. I’ve never seen that after a loss. The guys are obviously still frustrated that we didn’t find a way to get something out of that game, but at the same time we went toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the world.”
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Still, Johnston knows the Canadians need more than another good performance. They need a result.
So did the 12th-seeded Croats, who had a scoreless draw with no. 22, Morocco, in their opening match had to be satisfied.
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Back in Croatia, Canada coach John Herdman made headlines for an on-field interview in which he was asked what he told his players in a post-game after the Belgium loss.
“I told them they belong here and we go and eff- Croatia,” he said with a smile. “It’s as simple as it gets.”
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A popular Croatian tabloid, 24 sataputs Herdman’s head on top of a naked body with a Maple Leaf covering his mouth and a much smaller one underneath with a caption that roughly translates to “You’ve got the mouth. But do you have the balls?”
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was cool in responding to Herdman’s heat.
“We must and we will definitely talk about it. It can only motivate us,” he said Croatia week.
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Johnston, a 24-year-old CF Montreal defender with the gift of the gab, downplayed the off-field controversy.
“Look we know it’s a massive game. This is a team that finished as runners-up in the last World Cup. This is an incredibly talented group. They don’t need any extra motivation. So I bet they were looking at it like ‘OK, who is this team that we probably never heard of until a few months ago talking a big game?’
“But we believe in ourselves. We believe we can back it up. And at the end of the day, no matter what is said, no matter what pictures are put in the tabloids, it’s all going to come down to what happens on the pitch in those 90 minutes. We understand that and we feel very good about it.”
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Croatia will have four points if they can see off Canada. And no matter what happens in the match between Belgium and Morocco in Sunday’s other Group F game, one of those teams will also end the day with four points. A defeat on Sunday and the Canadians could end up with no more than three points.
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Canada’s final group game is against Morocco next Thursday.
Johnston started 29 consecutive games for Canada, a record for the men’s national team. He moved past Bruce Wilson, who captained Canada at the 1986 World Cup and played 27 straight, in the Canadian’s final pre-tournament warm-up – a 2-1 win over Japan on Nov. 17 in Dubai.
Johnston’s senior debut coincided with Canada’s opening World Cup qualifier against Bermuda in March 2021. He won a second game against the Cayman Islands before missing a match against Aruba in June 2021.
He was back later that month for a match with Suriname and has not missed a game since.
The young fullback/winger has come a long way since being taken 11th overall by Nashville SC out of Wake Forest in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Montreal spent big to get Johnston from Nashville, giving up US$1 million in general allocation money to get him last December. It then signed him to a new two-year deal with options for the 2024 and 2025 campaigns.
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Now he has been linked with a move to Glasgow Celtic.
Johnston has managed to fend off transfer talk as he talks up the Scottish powerhouse.
“To be linked with a club like Celtic is obviously something I think every young footballer is excited about. I think this is one of the most passionate fans in the world, if not the most passionate. It’s a club that even people who don’t follow football now who are.”
Johnston said the reports “almost broke my phone.”
“At the moment the focus is only on the national team. Personal things, club things, which will all sort of be figured out once (the) January (transfer window) hits. We still have a lot more business to take care of here in Qatar.”
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