DOHA, Qatar -- Welcome back, Neymar, at just the right time at the World Cup.
Neymar seemed healthy in training before Monday's game against South Korea in the round of 16. The forward missed the final two matches of the group stage after injuring his right ankle in the opening game win over Serbia.
Brazil easily moved into the next round without Neymar. No longer bothered by his ankle, Neymar was expected to start — and not come off the bench as a precautionary measure — if he plays against South Korea.
“I prefer to use my best player from the start,” Brazil coach Tite said. “It’s the coach who has to make that decision and take on that responsibility.”
In footage released by the Brazilian soccer federation, he appeared to be in good condition, doing drills with the ball and taking shots on goal without signs of his injury.
“Obviously we won’t say that it’s better to face Brazil when Neymar is playing, but I always prefer when the best players are there,” South Korea coach Paulo Bento said.
Bento hasn't been pleased with the three-day rest period between games from the group stage to the knockout round. Brazil advanced with a game to spare and was able to rest the team's stars in its final match, but South Korea had to claw its way into the knockout round with a win over Portugal.
“It’s not fair,” Bento said. “I think that it has to do with the new FIFA reality, which is to create worse conditions for the less-favored teams and probably better conditions for the more-favored ones.”
Even after the surprise win over Portugal, South Korea had to wait for over nine agonizing minutes of extra time for a game across Qatar to end. The outcome of Uruguay against Ghana determined if the South Korean's advanced into the round of 16.
When Uruguay failed to score the goals it needed to best South Korea for the final spot in Group H, the South Korean players who had formed a circle on the field to watch the game on phones erupted into joyous celebration.
South Korean captain Son Heung-min even began to cry.
South Korea is now trying to advance past the round of 16 for the first time since the Asian team's historic run as a co-host in 2002, when it reached the semifinals and finished fourth. South Korea was eliminated in the group stage in 2014 and 2018.
South Korea advanced by beating Portugal 2-1 with a dramatic stoppage-time goal by Hwang Hee-chan, who was a second-half substitute. He's expected to be in the starting lineup again against Brazil after missing the team’s first two games because of a hamstring injury.
“In the first match it was impossible for me to play and the pain got worse. I did a little running, but I thought I could play the second match, but they held me out," Hwang said, adding that playing against Portugal "was a little bit of a risk. But I didn’t care what happened to me personally. I just wanted to contribute.”
It will be the first official meeting between Brazil and South Korea, with the South Americans winning six of seven friendlies. South Korea was victorious in 1999.
“We can’t think it’s going to be an easy game like it was in that friendly,” Brazil captain Thiago Silva said. “Now it’s the World Cup and they’ve advanced in a very tough group. We have a lot of respect for them.”
Japan and Croatia meet for the first time in the knockout round of the World Cup after the teams squared off two previous times in group play. Croatia won in 1998 and the teams finished with a goalless draw eight years later.
This time, Japan won Group E after come-from-behind 2-1 victories over Germany and Spain and is in the knockout round for back-to-back tournaments for the first time in team history.
At stake for Japan is its first trip to the quarterfinals in four tries.
“Japan is a team that doesn't quit,” Croatia coach Zlatko Dalić said. “They conceded goals at the beginning of the match both against Germany and Spain, but they came back. They had a lot of faith in themselves, and that is a great virtue of the Japan national team.”
Croatia, the runner-up to France in the 2018 World Cup, is making its third appearance in the knockout round. Croatia beat Romania in 1998 to advance to the semifinals and defeated Denmark 3-2 on penalties in 2018 en route to the final game — a 4-2 loss to reigning World Cup champion France.
It is the first time Croatia will play an Asian team in a World Cup knockout match after eight previous games against European teams.
“For us, it will be key that we are also disciplined and patient,” Dalić said. "We cannot make mistakes because Japan has the quality to punish those mistakes. We need to be good at falling back if we lose the ball.”
Croatia advanced despite two goalless draws in group play — equaling the number of scoreless games it had in the 2006, 2014 and 2018 tournaments, a span of 13 games.
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