Christine Sinclair scores as Canada opens Olympic tournament with draw vs. Japan

After more than a year of pandemic delays, Canada’s women’s soccer team kicked off its Olympic tournament with a 1-1 draw against host Japan, who odds makers had as heavy favourites going into this game.

Coming into the tournament, Canada had struggled scoring goals and generating quality scoring chances.That narrative appeared to change early.

After controlling the early moments of the game, captain Christine Sinclair, playing in her 300th game for Canada, scored the game’s first goal.

In the sixth minute, Sinclair converted her own rebound from in close after her first shot hit the post. It was the 38 year-old’s 187th all time goal, adding to her all-time international goal-scoring mark.

WATCH | Sinclair’s goal gives Canada an early lead over Japan:

Captain Christine Sinclair gives Canada a 1-0 lead over Japan with her record-extending 187th international goal of her career. 1:16

After Canada’s initial flurry, neither team threatened again in the first half with most of the remaining minutes played in the middle of the field.

Early in the second half, Japan almost equalized after a bizarre sequence. 

After Canadian goalkeeper Stepanie Labbé collided with Japanese forward Mina Tanaka, a free kick was initially awarded to Canada.

Labbé was injured on the play and while medical staff tended to her, the play was reviewed. After a second look, Labbé was given a yellow card and the Canadian free kick became a Japanese penalty kick.

It appeared that the collision would force Labbé from the game but she remained on the field and denied Tanaka’s penalty with a diving save.

WATCH | Stephanie Labbé suffers injury, stops penalty then leaves game:

Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé is injured in a collision but is called for penalty. Labbé makes the save on Mina Tanaka then is substituted out of the game for Kailen Sheridan. 3:02

Japan followed the penalty kick with a flurry of chances as Canada was unable to clear the ball out of their penalty area. Labbé made a number of saves before having to leave the game with an injury. She left the pitch in tears and was replaced by Kailen Sheridan.

Canada appeared to be in control of this game, before Japan’s Manu Yabuchi equalized with six minutes to play. Yabuchi was able to chase down a long pass, out running Canadian defenders, before chipping it by Sheridan.

After scoring early, Canada didn’t really threaten again, unable to generate much offence in the second half. Canada finished the game with only one shot on goal.

Thankfully for both teams this game was played indoors, inside the cavernous Sapporo Dome, which is located about 800 kilometres north of Tokyo. The weather in Japan has been stifling, with the temperature in Sapporo hitting 35 degrees, the hottest weather the city’s seen in nearly 40 years.

It was refreshing to actually focus on soccer after months of focus on COVID-19 testing and protocols. 

COVID-19 protocols hamper home-pitch advantage

The only reminder of the ongoing pandemic, which has cast an early shadow over these Games, was the lack of fans inside the cavernous 41-thousand seat Sapporo Dome. Japan didn’t have the backing hometown fans, which traditionally gives the host nation an added advantage.

Organizers didn’t bother pumping in artificial crowd noise. Instead, you could hear almost everything being said on the field as well as the incessant clicking of cameras.

In any other year, it’s likely this game would have generated considerable excitement in Japan. But whether this game was generating any buzz here was hard to gauge. There were no raucous gatherings or watch parties, as bars and restaurants in Japan have been asked to close at 8 p.m., in an attempt to stem a growing number of COVID-19 cases.

Canada came into this game brimming with confidence, not shy about their goal of winning gold at these Games. After winning bronze at the last two Olympics, the mantra for this team has been “change the colour”. It’s repeated constantly by head coach Bev Priestman, who was appointed head coach last October, and blasted over all of the team’s official social media streams.

“They have been very clear that they want to change the colour of the medal from bronze to gold,” Priestman told international media before the game. “I truly believe that any given day if we turn up and we are ready, we can do that.”

This 22 member Canadian team is a mix of familiar faces and newcomers. Sinclair, one of the most decorated soccer players to ever walk on the field, is of course this team’s leader.

“I still get up everyday trying to get better and when that goes away, I have to step away,” said Sinclair, who is competing at her fourth Olympic Games.”To be able to compete in these Olympics with this group is something special. I wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a chance to win”

In total, five players on this team have appeared more than 100 times internationally for Canada. And 12 players were part of the Canadian team that won back to back bronze medals in 2102 and 2016.

WATCH | Canada women’s soccer Olympic preview:

Brendan Dunlop sits down with former Canadian Women’s Soccer National Team members Diana Matheson and Karina Leblanc, to discuss key players for Canada and their chances at a medal in Tokyo. 10:07

“We have 22 players that can make a difference on the pitch and I don’t think we have had that in the past,” Sinclair said before the game.

Japan, ranked 11th in the world, came into this game with a 7-4-3 all-time record against Canada. The last time the two teams played was in 2019, when Japan thumped Canada 4-0.

Group play continues for Canada on Saturday against Chile, and then wraps up on Thursday against Great Britain.

The 12 nation tournament is divided into three round robin groups. The top two teams in each group plus the two best third place teams will advance to the quarter-finals.

Find live streams, must-watch video highlights, breaking news and more in one perfect Olympic Games package. Following Team Canada has never been easier or more exciting.

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