Herdman: 'When you have the underdog mindset, it's a gift and a curse'
In the absence of the injured Atiba Hutchinson, David (Junior) Hoilett will captain Canada against Qatar in an international friendly against Qatar on Friday in Vienna.
The 39-year-old Hutchinson, Canada's all-time men's caps leader with 97 senior appearances, has been sidelined by a bone bruise suffered in pre-season with Turkey's Besiktas. The 32-year-old Hoilett takes over the captain's armband in his 48th appearance for Canada.
"He'll lead the team out," Herdman said Thursday. "He's in wonderful form at his club at Reading near the top of the Championship (England's second-tier)."
Herdman is expecting a well-drilled opponent in the World Cup host at the Generali Arena, which is home to Austria Vienna.
"Qatar will probably be the most prepared team going in to the World Cup," said Herdman. "The investment that's gone into them is pretty unique — being able to use all of the opportunities that they have as a country to centralize their players and pretty much play like a club team."
The players are largely drawn from Qatar teams, with Al Sadd and Al-Duhail leading the way.
Herdman noted Qatar played club sides in Italy's Lazio and Fiorentina during the summer and is coming off a game against the Croatian under-23 team this week.
"They're a team that is well organized, very disciplined, a good footballing team. And you can tell they know each other inside-out. So this is going to be a real challenge for Canada."
Qatar is ranked 48th in the world, five places below Canada. The World Cup hosts will play out of Group A at the World Cup along with the eighth-ranked Netherlands, No. 18 Senegal (the reigning Africa Cup of Nations champion) and No. 44 Ecuador.
Canada, which has never faced Qatar before, takes on No. 13 Uruguay next Tuesday in Bratislava, Slovakia.
For the Canadians, it's a first get-together since an ill-fated camp in June in Vancouver when players refused to play a friendly against Panama due to a contract dispute. The team put the impasse behind it to play Curacao and Honduras in CONCACAF Nations League matches June 9 and 13. But contract talks continue.
Canada's final World Cup warmup is Nov. 17 against No. 24 Japan in Dubai. The Canadians open tournament play against No. 2 Belgium on Nov. 23 in Group F.
A congested schedule, in part due to the pandemic, has made for a busy workload for Herdman's players of late. The coach is having to balance the desire to prepare the team for Qatar with only a few games remaining, while not overloading players coming off a hectic club schedule.
"Some players are probably overloaded," he said. "Which just means we've got to taper a little bit around these games and be smart. It's exciting to have them back and you just want them playing two matches because you haven't had them for three months. But unfortunately … some of them have been heavily loaded at their clubs so are coming in needing a bit of rest."
But Herdman knows the talent at hand and what's needed to get to "that next-level standard that we are going to have to reach."
"Having been four years on this journey, if you don't know your team now you're in a bit of trouble," he told The Canadian Press. "I think it's clear in our minds there's a core group and there's a group of players that are trying to surprise, push, shock, to give us something else to think about."
Club Brugge winger Tajon Buchanan is returning from injury and will likely only make the bench for the Uruguay game "if he meets all the markers." Toronto FC defender Doneil Henry, who came down with a hamstring problem on the eve of camp, is with the team but not expected to see action.
Herdman wanted Henry to be part of the camp "to keep him close to this team."
"He's been a big presence in the dressing room. He's a real leader of men."
Qatar is coached by Felix Sanchez, a 46-year-old Spaniard who was a Barcelona youth coach before moving to Qatar in 2006 to join the Aspire sports academy. He transitioned to coaching Qatar youth teams, taking over the senior squad in 2017.
Qatar has never been ranked higher than No. 42, with a low of No. 113.
Qatar missed out on World Cup qualification in 2018, finishing bottom of its six-team third-round qualifying group at 2-7-1.
But Sanchez led Qatar to victory at the 2019 Asian Cup, winning seven straight games while outscoring the opposition 19-1. The Qataris defeated Iraq, South Korea and the host United Arab Emirates in the knockout rounds before beating Japan 3-1 in the final.
Almoez Ali led the tournament in scoring with a record nine goals.
The team also features star winger Akram Afif, named Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Player of the Year in 2019. Veteran Hassan Al-Haydos captains the squad.
Qatar, a guest team, failed to advance out of the group stage at the 2019 Copa America, tying Paraguay 2-2 before losing 1-0 to Colombia and 2-0 to Argentina.
Qatar finished third at the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup, defeating Egypt in a penalty shootout after losing 2-1 to eventual champion Algeria in the semifinal.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2022.