After a three-month hiatus, the CanMNT returns to the pitch early Friday morning (in the western hemisphere, at least) with a challenging friendly with Japan in the industrial city of Niigata, Japan.

Canada previously faced the Samurai Blue last November 2022 in a pre-World Cup tune-up match in Doha, Qatar, which saw John Herdman’s men prevail 2-1 thanks to a Lucas Cavallini penalty deep into added time.

Despite the result, Canada and Japan’s paths would diverge in the World Cup where Canada bowed out in the group stages in the consensus group of death, while Japan would famously get past powerhouses Germany and Spain before falling to semi-finalist Croatia in penalty kicks.

Japan is currently enjoying a four-game win streak where they have soundly thrashed their opposition by an aggregate score of 18 to 4. Their most recent victories were in September against quality opposition in the form of Germany (4-1) and Türkiye (4-2).

Alternatively, Canada has not played since a somewhat disappointing early exit at the Gold Cup in July, and sports a new head coach since then as well. Mauro Biello, Canada’s interim head coach, is expecting the Japan match to be a tough test for Canada. Biello also sees the match as a test for him as much as for Canada as he aspires to remove the interim tag and become the permanent replacement for Herdman.

What to expect from Biello’s Canada

With just one game this window, and against a strong and in-form Japanese team, Biello will not have much latitude for experimentation. And with a bevy of veterans like Milan Borjan (whom Biello confirmed Thursday will return as captain), Steven Vitória, and Junior Hoilett included in the squad there will be less opportunity for some non-core players to see the field at all, despite the late injury to Stephen Eustáquio. As has been the case with the CanMNT program of late, having just one game this window can be considered a missed opportunity to grow the squad.

Will Biello opt for a three or four-man backline? Based on the player selection, which tilts heavily towards the defence, Canada is more likely to line up with a three-man back-line and two wing-backs. Indeed, in this match, Canada may appear to be going with a five-man backline when not in possession. This, in turn, will often flatten the three Canadian midfielders into a flat defensive line in front of the defenders during those passages of play.

Related read: Breaking down Biello’s first CanMNT squad

With six substitutes available to Biello in this friendly, it would not be surprising to see all five Canadian midfielders utilized along with a pair of defenders coming off the bench as well. That could mean Harry Paton and Mathieu Choinière may see their debuts with the national team.

While much excitement has been built up around the inclusion of Luc de Fougerolles in the squad, it is far from certain that he will see the pitch. Although this may be unpopular with some CanMNT fans, expect De Fougerolles’ experience with the national team to mirror that of Luca Koleosho last summer, at least for now.

What’s new in Japan?

There has been a decided youth movement since the 2022 World Cup. A half-dozen veterans in their 30s with over 500 caps between them have not been selected to play with the national team in 2023. The majority of the most recognizable names from the Japanese team of the last decade have retired from international play, if not hung up their cleats altogether.

Additionally, Brighton & Hove midfielder Kaoru Mitoma has withdrawn from the Japan squad on account of “poor physical condition”. Also, Celtic forward Daizen Maeda has also bowed out from the squad due to injury.

But talk of individual stars is often missing the point with the Japanese team. More often, it comes down to Japan’s teamwork and their mentality as a collective unit rather than star power that drives their success. Look for more of this mindset against Canada.

5 Japanese players to watch

Wataru Endo is a defensive midfielder and veteran of over 100 Bundesliga matches with Vfb Stuttgart. Endo made the move to Liverpool in August 2023 and was also named Japan’s captain earlier this year.

Takumi Minamino is an attacking midfielder and winger currently with Ligue 1 powerhouse Monaco. Minamino spent a couple seasons in Liverpool where he failed to establish himself and get regular minutes. However, with Japan’s national team, he has been stellar, as his team-leading 17 career goals attests.

Junya Itō is another attacking midfielder and winger. Currently with Reims in Ligue 1 France, Itō has been a regular starter with the national team for a few years now. Itō is not afraid to let one fly from distance.

Kyogo Furuhashi is a teammate of Alistair Johnston at Scottish Premiership side Celtic. For the past two seasons in the Scottish Premiership Furuhashi has been prolific in front of goal with 43 goals from 64 matches. He was surprisingly left out of Japan’s 2022 World Cup squad, but is expected to lead the line for Japan against Canada.

Takuma Asano is a forward plying his trade with Vfl Bochum in the Bundesliga. Asano is likely to see action as either Fufuhashi’s strike partner or substitute depending on Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu’s formation. Asano’s two most recent goals for Japan were scored against Germany, one a month ago and the other at the World Cup in November 2022.

3 keys to the match

How will the midfield hold up without Eustáquio anchoring the middle?

It is expected that Samuel Piette will start in the Porto man’s absence as he is the closest like-for-like midfield pivot Canada has, albeit one with notably less offensive ball skills. However, this will likely not matter as Japan will likely dominate possession, and Canada will need to be ready to suffer without the ball for considerable stretches in the match. Still, the midfield will need to give a good account of themselves against a relentless Japanese midfield led by Endo and Minamino. To this end, Biello will be looking to get a solid effort from Ismaël Koné and veteran Jonathan Osorio. The degree to which Canada can control the midfield will have a tremendous impact on how their overall defence will fare.

How will Canada cope from set pieces?

The CanMNT’s old bogeyman, set pieces, almost always comes to play a factor in matches against quality opposition. Japan are generally a disciplined and meticulously prepared team. This will be particularly evident on set-piece set-ups. With Herdman’s exodus to Toronto FC went the bulk of his coaching staff, including goalkeeping coach Simon Eaddy. Along with goalkeeper coaching duties, Eaddy had been tasked with overseeing the CanMNT set pieces for the past several years, with mixed success. Who is overseeing the set pieces under Biello is not known yet but this will be an area to watch in the post-Herdman era.

Can Canada find a cutting edge?

The final factor for Canada will be their efficiency in the final third. While Larin and David have more often than not shown up for Canada when needed, neither striker can be said to be experiencing a good run of form with their clubs. As noted earlier, with Japan expected to dominate the possession battle, Canada will need to be clinical when opportunities arise. Expect those opportunities to come from quick counterattacks, particularly down the flanks. This is where starman Davies excels with club side Bayern Munich, and hence, provides the impetus for Biello to field him in a deeper role to mimic those conditions. Laryea can be similarly dangerous in the counter as well.

Predicted lineups

Japan – (4-2-3-1)

Keisuke Osako (GK) – Hiroki Ito, Takehiro Tomiyhasu, Ko Itakura, Yukinara Sugawara – Wataru Endo, Hidemasa Morita – Junya Itō, Takumi Minamino, Takefusa Kubo – Kyogo Furuhashi

Canada – (3-4-1-2)

Milan Borjan (GK) – Kamal Miller, Steven Vitória, Alistair Johnston – Alphonso Davies, Samuel Piette, Ismaël Koné, Richie Laryea – Jonathan Osorio – Cyle Larin, Jonathan David

Match details

Kickoff time: 6:35 a.m. ET, 3:35 a.m. PT

Stadium: Denka Big Swan Stadium, Niigata, Japan

How to watch: OneSoccer, fuboTV