SAMARA: Brazil will look to keep their bid for a record sixth World Cup crown on track when they face Mexico on Monday with a quarterfinal place at stake after seeing Spain join the list of contenders to be eliminated.
Monday’s other last-16 game sees a much-fancied Belgium take on a Japan side who are dreaming of reaching the quarters for the first time after scraping through their group thanks to their fair-play record.
While Neymar’s Brazil, and a Belgian outfit inspired by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku, are both expected to advance, events of the weekend have shown that nothing can be taken for granted.
Spain, the 2010 winners, were stunned on Sunday as they lost on penalties to Russia in Moscow, with Igor Akinfeev the hero for the hosts, saving two spot-kicks.
Russia won 4-3 in the shoot-out after the tie ended 1-1 at the Luzhniki Stadium, and will now play Croatia in the last eight.
Croatia also won on penalties, defeating Denmark 3-2 in the shoot-out following another 1-1 draw, with Luka Modrić having a spot-kick saved late in extra time.
They look like serious contenders, while for Spain, their elimination is a disaster: they had been considered among the favourites, but had their preparations ruined when coach Julen Lopetegui was sensationally fired on the eve of the tournament.
They join 2014 winners Germany, Argentina, and European champions Portugal in being knocked out of a competition for which neither Italy nor the Netherlands qualified.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two greatest players of the last decade, have gone home, their hopes of ever winning the World Cup probably over.
But Neymar is still dreaming of leading Brazil to glory, and his side take on Mexico in the Volga River port city of Samara. Coach Tite insists his talisman is now approaching his best form again, four months after undergoing surgery on a fractured foot.
“Now, he’s returned to a very high level. He’s played a lot… I told him, and he knows, about the price he’s had to pay to get back to this level,” said Tite.
Brazil will be without left-back Marcelo due to a back problem, so Filipe Luís will take his place against a Mexico side not to be taken lightly.
These teams drew 0-0 in the group stage of the last World Cup, and Mexico qualified for the last 16 here at the expense of Germany, beating the holders 1-0 in Moscow in their opening game.
Now, ‘El Tri’ are bidding to end the ‘Curse of the Fifth Game’ – they have never made it to the quarterfinals of a World Cup on foreign soil and have suffered six consecutive eliminations in the first knockout round, not managing to reach that fifth game.
However, coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he was not concerned about past history.
“We don’t talk about that to our players. We spoke about the possibility of coming up against Brazil a few months ago, and here we are,” he said.
The winner of that tie will go on to face the winner of Monday’s other game, which sees Belgium meet Japan in Rostov-on-Don.
Roberto Martínez’s dangerous side have lived up to their billing so far, winning all three group games. A host of key players were rested for the 1-0 victory against England, including Hazard, Lukaku, and Kevin De Bruyne, but they will return here.
However, Adnan Januzaj, who scored the winner in that match, has suffered a knee knock in training.
This might be the best chance for Belgium’s ‘golden generation’ to win a major trophy after being eliminated in the last eight at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.
“This is our time to shine, definitely. We have top players and we play as a group, especially after the win over England,” said Chelsea star Hazard.
“It’s in our hands, we need to give everything and see what happens.”
Japan reached this stage in controversial manner, by virtue of collecting fewer yellow cards in the group phase than Senegal. They have never won a knockout-round game at the competition.
“Maybe Belgium feel the tournament is starting after their three wins, but I’d like to feel we are on a par with them. We have played to our best, but the players have something more to offer,” said coach Akira Nishino.