The good citizens of this city in the West Midlands celebrated the beginning of "Godiva Awakes" on Saturday – Coventry's flagship cultural Olympiad event, in which a six-metre high puppet will be carried to London on a 50-seater bicycle. Fitting, since it is in Coventry that Lady Godiva rode naked on horse-back as a protest through high taxes.
But Canada's Olympic women's soccer team celebrated another awakening of sorts in front of an announced crowd of 14,753 at City of Coventry Stadium. Christine Sinclair, who is everything and a little more to this program, scored an emphatic 138th career goal in the 58 minute and added another in the 86 minute as John Herdman's women survived a scare from 61-ranked South Africa for a 3-0 win in the second game of their preliminary round competition.
The win all but assures Canada will advance to the knockout stage. Canada has a win and a loss and a goal differential of plus-two going into Tuesday's meeting in Newcastle with Sweden, and while three goals against an opponent often constitutes a bounty, Herdman hoped for more. Sweden's goal-differential is plus-three; Japan is plus-one, with a match to come against South Africa. Now you're getting into the world of permutations: tie-breakers, all that messy business.
"I was happy with the way they finished strong in the end," said Herdman. "I just wish that we could have scored an extra goal that could help us later on in the tournament."
It is possible Canada's first opponent in the knockout round could be their old bugaboo: the U.S. Bring them on, said Herdman. "I'd love to play the U.S. in the quarter-finals," he said, matter-of-factly. "You have to play the U.S.A. at some point."
Sinclair, invisible – let alone scoreless – for much of a 2-1 loss to Japan and again on Saturday in a first half in which Canada was clogged up in mid-field, rose to meet Sophie Schmidt's cross and headed the ball off the cross-bar, directly down to the goal-line. Sinclair wasn't going to leave anything to chance, charging in and hammered a right-footed volley into the netting, even if TV replays showed it might have already crossed the line.
Sinclair added her 139th career goal in the 86 minute, applying the finish to long pass up the heart of midfield. It was a birthday present for her father, Bill Sinclair, but Sinclair said later she forgot the celebration she'd planned. "I was going to do the heart thing," she said, forming a heart with her two hands.
"I don't know if the header was in. I do know that I was not going to take any chances. I was able to get at it pretty quickly."
Melissa Tancredi put Canada in front in the seventh minute, guiding the ball past a prone Thokozile Mcdaweni, the South African keeper. The goal was set up by diminutive Diana Matheson, Canada's best player in the opening 45 minutes.
Herdman brought on Jonelle Filigno after Sinclair's first goal and Canada responded with an extra spring in their step. Sinclair could have had two more goals, and Matheson's strike also came off a play set up by the Canadian skipper.
Canada played the game without defender Candace Chapman, who left the stadium on crutches after the Japan game. Her replacement, Robyn Gale, exited Saturday's match with what Herdman said was a hamstring injury. Both are day to day as is another central defender, Emily Zurrer. Karina LeBlanc was favoured over Erin McLeod in goal, and Herdman was coy when asked who might get the call against Sweden.
"We'll work through that," Herdman said. "There's a couple of things you have to consider in this game. You're looking at distribution from the goalkeeper, and there are things around the way Sweden play: their will be crosses left, right and centre and they're very good on the counter-attack with balls over the top, so you'll need a keeper who's sharp off the line and lively."
South Africa carried the play to Canada for the final 20 minutes of the first half and at the start of the second. They came close to a goal in the 31 minute, taking advantage of confusion between LeBlanc and two defenders. But Mpumi Nyandeni hit the crossbar, sparing everyone's blushes. For a club with memories of a shocking World Cup collapse, there was absolutely no comfort zone until Sinclair scored.
"I think they got a little tired in the second half," said Sinclair. "We were able to exploit the spaces a little more."
And so Herdman's team avoided the type of mis-step against an underdog or at least purposeful opponent that was the legacy of his predecessor, Carolina Morace.
"Totally," Tancredi said when asked if this was the kind of game Canada might have lost in the past. "We would have freaked out and folded under pressure, especially defensively. We were calm on the ball, slowed it down, made passes that were simple."