Canada was left looking for positives Friday in the wake of a scoreless draw with Nigeria in its opening match at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Coach Bev Priestman and her players found some. But it had a feel of trying to make lemonade out of lemons, especially given captain Christine Sinclair’s saved penalty in the 50th minute.
The seventh-ranked Canadians outshot No. 40 Nigeria 15-10 (3-1 in shots on target) and dominated possession in the early going, creating chances that they could not convert.
“It feels like we dropped points,” said Canadian goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. “It feels like we lost. I think we wanted more from ourselves.”
“But ultimately there was a lot of good things that we’re going to want to take away. We have an incredible team so I know we’ll bounce back really hard.”
With Ireland up next, Priestman wanted her team to look forward not back.
“Of course the team and I are devastated we didn’t get three points. But at the end of the day, we got one (point) and we took two from another team,” she added.
The Nigerians hunkered down and relied on a physical defence as the Canadians took it to them early. But the Super Falcons settled as the first half wore on and began asking questions of Olympic champion Canada.
It wasn’t exactly the beautiful game, but there were moments of drama. None more so than early in the second half.
Sinclair appealed for a penalty in the 47th minute when she was clipped by Francisca Ordega in the penalty box and went down. There was no call initially, but Finnish referee Lina Lehtovaara eventually pointed to the penalty spot after video review.
Sinclair stepped up and aimed for the corner, only to see Nigerian goalkeeper Chiamaka Nnadozie make a superb one-handed save and bundle the ball away from an onrushing Sinclair.
It was a good penalty attempt, but a better save. Nnadozie, who plays in France for Paris FC, pumped her fists. Sinclair, on the ground after trying unsuccessfully to get a second bite at the apple after the save, looked forlorn. Career goal 191 will have to wait for Canada’s captain.
Jessie Fleming, Canada’s penalty taker of choice of late, was on the bench — deemed not fit enough to start.
“Christine Sinclair’s scored many many many goals for this country and I’m sure the fans, the team and everyone can forgive missing a penalty kick,” said Priestman. “Penalty kicks are a 50-50 chance and on this day Sinc didn’t score that … At the end of the day, this team and this country loves Christine Sinclair more than anything. And so they’re rally around her and we’ll have her ready for the next game.”
Sinclair, who gave way to Sophie Schmidt in the 71st minute, did not speak to reporters.
“It’s football. It happens,” Schmidt said of the penalty. “The goalkeeper did a really good job, going the right way.”
Schmidt said the post-match mood was one of frustration.
“We dominated so we can’t let our heads hang in that performance. There’s so many good things to take away,” she said. “But I think we’re frustrated with ourselves that we couldn’t find a way to get a goal.”
There were anxious moments at both ends in the final quarter of the game with both teams looking for the go-ahead goal. An acrobatic one-legged save by Sheridan in the 80th minute was accompanied by an offside flag to negate the play.
Eight tense minutes of added time followed that and saw Nigeria midfielder Deborah Abiodun, after video review, sent off for a nasty studs-up tackle on fullback Ashley Lawrence.
In looking for positives, Priestman noted that the Canadians had opened their Olympic campaign with a draw (1-1 with Japan). She also pointed to the positive impact of forwards Cloe Lacasse and Evelyne Viens and other substitutes, as well as her team’s clean sheet.
The Canadian women have now held the opposition scoreless in six of their last 10 World Cup outings.
But on the other side of the coin, Canada was blanked for the third time in fives games this year. Priestman’s team has scored in just two of those outings and been outscored 7-3 in 2023.
“I did say we would grow through the tournament,” said Priestman. “Of course, did I envisage that it would end in a 0-0 draw? Probably not. And nor should it of, really, if you look at the chances and volume of crosses and even the corners.”
“It’s not ideal but I don’t want to get wrapped up too early as to what this is or what it isn’t.”
The Canadian women leave Melbourne on Monday for Perth, some 2,720 kilometres to the west, to face No. 22 Ireland on Wednesday. The Irish are coming off a 1-0 loss to No. 10 Australia in Sydney.
Canada then meets Australia on July 31 back in Melbourne.
Finishing second in Group B would mean a probable round-of-16 date with fourth-ranked England, the reigning European champion.
It was partly sunny and 11 degrees Celsius at kickoff (12:30 p.m. local time Friday and 10:30 p.m. ET Thursday in Canada) at the Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, otherwise known as AAMI Park.
Home to rugby league’s Melbourne Storm, rugby union’s Melbourne Rebels and soccer’s Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart, the stadium is across the street from the Australian Open tennis complex and the Melbourne Cricket ground. The stadium was not full, but the announced crowd of 21,410 was enthusiastic, with the majority seemingly cheering for the Nigerians.
The game featured the two oldest players at the tournament with Sinclair (40 years 39 days) and Nigeria’s Onome Ebi (40 years 74 days), both at their sixth World Cup. Ebi started on the bench.
It was cap No. 324 for Sinclair, the world’s all-time leading goal-scorer. It was also World Cup start No. 22 for the talismanic skipper — only retired Americans Kristine Lilly (29) and Joy Fawcett (23) have more tournament starts.
Deanne Rose, who raced against time to make Canada’s roster after a long-term absence due to an Achilles injury, made the starting 11, which carried a combined cap count of 1,040 into the match. Nichelle Prince, who had also been sidelined with an Achilles injury, was on the bench.
Jordyn Huitema led the Canadian attack.
The Canadians dominated possession early on, with the Nigerians content to lie back and defend, often with lunging tackles.
The Super Falcons were taking no prisoners although Canada’s Quinn, who goes by one name, got a stern warning for scything down Nigerian star attacker Asisat Oshoala, who plays for Barcelona.
As the Canadian pressure continued, it seemed only a matter of time before cracks appeared in the African defence.
But it was Nigeria that had the first real scoring chance, in the 23rd minute, with Sheridan forced to make a diving save off a low Ifeoma Onumonu shot as the Canadians were caught short at the back.
It was the lone shot on target for either team in the first half.
Huitema’s header went wide in the 29th. Five minutes later, alarms bells rang as Sheridan slipped trying to clear a ball before a Nigerian attacker got to it.
Centre back Vanessa Gilles, with a desperate backheel, and then Lawrence had to clear the ball with the goal wide open and the Canadian defence in disarray.
Canada came into the game with a 2-1-2 record against Nigeria, recording a 2-0 win and 2-2 tie when they met in a pair of matches in April 2022 in B.C. Nigeria held the edge in two previous meetings at the World Cup, drawing 3-3 in 1995 and winning 1-0 in 2011 when the Canadians finished last.
The Canadian women are now 8-14-6 in World Cup play while Nigeria is 4-19-4.
Canada’s best finish at the World Cup was fourth in 2003. The Canadians, making their eighth trip to the soccer showcase, lost to Sweden in the round of 16 four years ago in France.
Nigeria has qualified for all eight previous editions of World Cup, making it out of the first round just twice, losing to Brazil in the quarterfinals in 1999 and Germany in the round of 16 in 2019.