HAVANA - A second-half header from Olivier Occean provided Canada the goal it needed as the Reds held on with 10 men for the final half-hour to escape Cuba with a 1-0 win Friday.
Canada’s first victory in CONCACAF’s third round of World Cup qualifying since winning in Guatemala in 2004, the well-earned result puts Canada atop Group C before a big test against Honduras Tuesday in Toronto.
“It was difficult,” head coach Stephen Hart said. “Cuba early on was well organized, did good things and settled down ... A lot of teams that have a passing game … are going to struggle.”
Although they trained Thursday at the Estadio Pedro Marrero, the stadium’s weed-laden pitch and the island’s humidity stymied Canada’s confidence through the first half, leading to Cuba’s best chance in the 29th minute.
After playing a one-two that cut through Canada’s three central midfielders, Cuba’s Ariel Gonzalez dragged the ball around centre back Kevin McKenna and unleashed a rising, left-footed shot that Lars Hirschfeld stretched to get fingers to.
With the home side knocking on the door, Hart stuck with the same 4-5-1 lineup that impressed a week earlier against the Americans to hold off the home side, whose endless energy troubled Canada throughout.
“It was difficult for the players today — very, very difficult,” Hart said of the conditions. “It would have been nice if Dwayne (De Rosario’s) chance went in right before the half.”
De Rosario provided Canada its best opportunity in first-half stoppage time when Cuba failed to deal with a cross. Finding the ball at his feet, De Rosario’s one-timer from the penalty spot came back off the crossbar to keep things level at the half.
“I think we did good getting into the right areas,” De Rosario said of his open look. “The main thing is we came out with a win … Cuba, to be fair, was decent.”
And motivated in front of a boisterous crowd that seemed as confident as their fellow countrymen after the break.
The home side should have grabbed a second-half lead in the 52nd after Canada’s defence struggled to clear a floated ball into the penalty area. The ball then squirted out to Gonzalez, whose shot from the edge of the box rolled inches wide of the back post.
“We wanted to put them under some sort of pressure by scoring early, but that didn’t happen for us,” Hart said of the game’s flow. “The longer the game went on, the anxiety started to build, but I thought we kept our discipline.”
After surviving Cuba throwing numbers forward in the afternoon heat, that patience paid off in the 55th minute after working the ball on the right side of the Cuban box. The ball eventually came back to David Edgar, whose bending cross landed on Occean’s head in front of goal to give Canada a massive lead on the road.
“One chance, one goal is what we were looking for,” Occean said. “We discussed it at half time that once we got a chance we had to have it on target and that’s it … Three points for us is fantastic.”
But it wasn’t without added drama. Just minutes after rejoicing on the sidelines, Canada’s bench fell silent when a poor decision from Hirschfeld saw Canada’s first-choice ’keeper sent off for an intentional hand ball outside the area.
With a half-hour remaining, a ball played over Canada’s defence called Hirschfeld to the top of — and beyond — his area. Misplaying a bounce, Canada’s No. 1 was forced to use his hands outside his box to prevent a Cuban equalizer.
“The pitch was dry and holding up the ball,” Hirschfeld said of the play. “I came out aggressively looking to clear it … When it bounced, it skipped up really high up over me and it was a desperation thing.”
Moving to a 4-4-1 for the remainder of the match, a big effort from Canada’s backs and midfielders helped its lone goal stand through the final 30 minutes.
With Canadian No. 2 Milan Borjan on to deal with a few half chances, Cuba’s final opportunity failed to develop 10 minutes from time when Gonzalez picked out Adonis Ramos behind the left side of Canada’s defence.
With nothing between the Cuban winger and goal, instead of sliding the ball across, Ramos’ second touch got stuck under his feet, killing the home side’s final attempt at grabbing a point.
“We sort of went into a different shape (after the ejection),” Hart said of Canada’s defensive effort. “I think at times we did show a bit of panic … We have to learn from situations like this.”
Canada returns to Toronto today in preparation for its second of six third-round qualifiers, hoping to stay atop Group C before back-to-back matches against Panama in October.
“We have scouting going on,” Hart said of Tuesday’s match against Honduras, the exact same scenario where Canada stumbled four years ago.
Something that would surprise almost everyone in the region, Canada securing six points from a possible six this month will go a long way in determining whether it makes CONCACAF’s final round for the first time since 1998.