SAMARA, Russia: Neymar’s Brazil will seek to keep their bid for a record sixth World Cup on track against Mexico on Monday after Russia celebrated their shock last-16 victory against Spain late into the night.
In the other match, fancied Belgium take on a Japan side dreaming of reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in their history after scraping through their group thanks to their fair-play record.
Brazil and a Belgian outfit inspired by Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are both expected to advance, but the events of the weekend have shown that nothing can be taken for granted in this tournament after a series of big names have crashed out.
Spain, the 2010 winners, lost on penalties to Russia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday, with Igor Akinfeev the hero for the hosts, saving two spot-kicks.
The win sparked an outpouring of joy on the streets of the capital, with disbelieving locals cheering, waving flags, blowing horns and yelling “Russ-i-a!”
Russia, ranked a lowly 70th in the world, will play Croatia in the last eight after similar drama in Nizhny Novgorod, where Luka Modric saw his spot-kick saved late in extra time before they held their nerve to defeat Denmark in the penalty shootout.
Spain had been considered among the favourites but their preparations were wrecked when coach Julen Lopetegui was sensationally sacked on the eve of the tournament.
“The KO in the last 16 is another dark chapter in our history,” said Spanish sports daily Marca, saying it was “incredible naivety” to think Lopetegui’s abrupt sacking would not affect the team.
Spain join 2014 winners Germany, Argentina and European champions Portugal in exiting the competition, leaving just four former winners in the tournament.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have dominated football for the past 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 the world’s most expensive player and his teammates take on Mexico in the Volga river port city of Samara at 1400 GMT.
Brazil coach Tite insists his talisman is now nearing 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.—AFP