In a performance typical of Canada of late – dull but efficient – another of Lyon’s treble-winners, the centre-back Kadeisha Buchanan, proved the difference as they made it nine in 10 clean sheets in 2019 against slightly chaotic but exhilarating Cameroon.
One would be forgiven for handing home advantage to the French national team at a World Cup in France but in a cool Stade de la Mosson in Montpellier, with the sun setting, Cameroon were urged on with more gusto than that on show in the Parc des Princes last Friday, with significantly fewer numbers.
PSG’s stadium rocked but, as the Cameroonian national anthem began to play, the allegiance of the crowd was clear. It moved, danced, jumped, sang, clapped and swayed in unison for the Indomitable Lionesses. This was a migrant community welcoming their team, which includes nine players who play their club football in France, sort of home.
It is rare Cameroon venture beyond their borders, unlike the two other teams from Africa competing at this World Cup, their preparations against international teams has been limited to a 1-0 loss to China in April and a 4-0 defeat by Spain in May.
Meanwhile South Africa and Nigeria both competed at in the friendly Cyprus Cup. There is a reason this team came third behind those two at the African Cup of Nations, they lack cohesion on the pitch.
The Canadians dominated possession but struggled to carve out clear-cut chances. Two corners and a free-kick inside four minutes gave the early impression that this would be a whitewash but as the clock ticked on, the women in green grew in confidence and Canada’s talisman, Christine Sinclair, only four shy of Abby Wambach’s record haul of 184 international goals, looked more and more isolated.
With the scary pace of Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene on the right wing linking well with Ajara Nchout, who plays for the Norwegian side Valerenga, and the forward Marlyse Ngo Ndoumbouk, there were signs that a Canadian defence that has conceded only once in 2019 could be breached by the team ranked 46th in the world.
Except that Canada also have someone playing at home. The 23-year-old Buchanan is the defender beginning to muscle apart Wendie Renard and Mbock Bathy’s Lyon centre-back partnership. With Aboudi Onguene bearing down on Stephanie Labbe in goal, Buchanan raced back to whip the ball from the feet of the dynamic winger where many would have conceded a penalty.
With Canada slightly rattled it was Buchanan again who settled the nerves, a downward header past Annette Ngo Ndom giving the ‘visitors’ the lead moments before half-time.
England’s Lucy Bronze said in April that “at the World Cup the girls at Lyon are probably the ones that are going to change the games”. With a France team built around a core of Lyon’s superstars inflicting a 4-0 defeat on South Korea, Buchanan handing Canada three points in a testing environment and Bronze and Nikita Parris providing England’s best outlet in their win over Scotland, it is hard to disagree.
“The environment that we’re training in is very high,” said Buchanan. “Lyon is one of the best club teams so to have that many top players playing for them, every practice is difficult. It is all about the environment we are in before the World Cup.”
What is also clear is that Canada’s progress may have edged closer but it is by no means assured. This is a tough group. Netherlands, the Euro 2017 winners, boast the best forward line in the competition while New Zealand pulled off a surprise win against England in Brighton.
When defences isolate Sinclair they struggle to create. There were some hairy moments for the five sitting deep for Cameroon, with the former NWSL player Estelle Johnson and team captain Christine Manie at its heart, but they looked a far more organised side than they did at their maiden World Cup in 2015 where they lost to China in the last 16.
They drove until the end but the Canadian defence held typically firm. “We take out defence very seriously,” said Buchanan. “The back line has been working together for a number of years now. All of us have quite a lot of caps playing with each other, so there’s a lot of connections there.”
A reliance on that defence both to hold the dam and score the goals will take them only so far on this stage, though. With the Netherlands Canada’s final group opponents on 20 June, that back line will be really tested against the best and it may become clear whether their run to a quarter-final on home soil in 2015 was just a team surfing on home momentum.