Neymar's Brazil, Belgium target quarters after Spain bow out
Samara - Brazil will look to keep their bid for a record
sixth Soccer World Cup crown on track when they face Mexico on Monday with a
quarter-final place at stake after seeing Spain join the list of contenders to
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
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 Modric 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
sacked 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 - two of the great World Cup names - even qualified.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the two great
individuals of the last decade, have gone home, teir 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 (16:00). 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 Luis will take his place against a Mexico side not to be
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 quarter-finals 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 (20:00).
Roberto Martinez'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
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.