AL RAYYAN, Qatar (Reuters) – Michy Batshuayi scored and Thibaut Courtois saved a penalty as a lacklustre Belgium opened their World Cup campaign on Wednesday with a scrappy 1-0 win over an energetic Canada side returning to the finals for first time in 36 years.
Leading the Belgian attack in the absence of injured talisman Romelu Lukaku, Batshuayi scored against the run of play on the stroke of halftime to put the Red Devils top of Group F ahead of Morocco and Croatia who earlier drew 0-0.
Despite getting the win, Belgium coach Roberto Martinez was far from satisfied with his team’s lethargic display as the Red Devils managed only nine attempts on goal to 21 for Canada.
If not for the lack of a Canadian finisher and a penalty save by Courtois from Alphonso Davies the result could have been very different for second ranked Belgium.
“We win, that’s the most important thing today,” said Martinez. “As always, we still have to grow in this tournament and improve things.
“Many top teams have lost, because you always have to grow at a World Cup.
“If you can do that, but win your matches at the same time, then that is something you can build on.”
In their only other World Cup appearance in Mexico in 1986, Canada lost all three matches and failed to score a goal.
Despite an inspired effort decades later, the result remained the same as Canada walked off Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium pitch with another loss and failure to find the back of the net.
Canada looked as if they would register their long-awaited first goal when Belgium’s Yannick Carrasco handled the ball in the 11th minute and Davies stepped up to take the penalty with the flag-waving Canadian supporters the Voyageurs roaring.
But Courtois, one of the world’s best goalkeepers, denied Davies an historic score by stopping his weak spot-kick.
“It’s not easy to score goals at this World Cup as you can see,” said Canada coach Herdman. “I think the set-pieces, we need to clean them up.
“I thought there were some missed opportunities there we need to get back to the drawing board on.
“Sometimes it’s your night and sometimes it’s not.”
The Canadian attack continued to press, their speed creating havoc in the Belgian defence and keeping Courtois busy throughout the first half.
Against the run of play, however, Belgium took the lead when Batshuayi broke between two defenders, ran on to a long ball from Toby Aldeweireld and shot past goalkeeper Milan Borjan in the 44th minute.
Herdman said his men would bring a nothing to lose approach to their opening game against the second-ranked Belgians who arrived in Qatar saddled with the burden of expectation.
Third-place finishers at the 2018 finals in Russia, Red Devils supporters want more this time from the star-studded roster that has been dubbed the “Golden Generation”.
Canada, who surprised by finishing top of the CONCACAF qualifying group ahead of traditional regional powerhouses Mexico and the United States, represented a potentially tricky opener for Martinez’s side and proved to be just that.
“They showed tonight that they do belong here,” Herdman said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been back
“We came into our game with a couple of goals. The first goal was to play fearless, and the second goal was stay in the game,” he added.
“I’m proud of what they did, really proud. They proved they can play here.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Al Rayyan, additional reporting Nick Said, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Editing by Ed Osmond)