DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Welcome back, Neymar, to the World Cup at just the right time.
Neymar appeared healthy in training for Monday’s round of 16 game against South Korea. The attacker missed the last two games of the group stage after injuring his right ankle in the opening game against Serbia.
Brazil easily advanced to the next round without Neymar. With his ankle freed up, Neymar was expected to start – and not come off the bench as a precaution – when he plays against South Korea.
“I prefer to use my best player from the start,” said national coach Tite. “It’s the coach who has to make that decision and take on that responsibility.”
In footage released by the Brazilian Football Federation, he appeared to be in good shape, practicing with the ball and taking shots on goal with no sign of his injury.
“Of course we will not say that it is better to play against Brazil when Neymar is playing, but I always prefer it when the best players are there,” said South Korean coach Paulo Bento.
Bento is not happy with the three-day rest period between matches from the group stage to the knockout round. Brazil advanced with a game to spare and were able to rest the team’s stars in the final game, but South Korea had to fight their way into the knockout round with a win over Portugal.
“It’s not fair,” Bento said. “I think 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 teams.”
Even after the surprise victory over Portugal, South Korea had to wait more than nine agonizing minutes of extra time before a match in Qatar was over. The outcome of Uruguay against Ghana determined whether the South Koreans advanced to the round of 16.
When Uruguay failed to score the goals it needed to beat South Korea for the last spot in Group H, the South Korean players who had formed a circle on the field burst to watch the game on phones, out in joyous celebration.
South Korean captain Son Heung-min even started crying.
South Korea is now attempting to progress past the round of 16 for the first time since the Asian team’s historic run as co-host in 2002, when it reached the semi-finals 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 from Hwang Hee-chan, who came on as a second-half substitute. He is expected to be back in the starting line-up against Brazil after missing the team’s first two matches due to a hamstring injury.
“In the first game it was impossible for me to play and the pain got worse. I ran a little bit, but I thought I could play the second game, but they stopped me,” said Hwang, adding that playing against Portugal “was a 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 the seven friendlies. South Korea triumphed in 1999.
“We can’t think it will be an easy match like in that friendly match,” Brazil captain Thiago Silva said. “Now it is the World Cup and they have moved up in a very difficult 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 have faced each other twice before in a group match. Croatia won in 1998 and the teams finished with a goalless draw eight years later.
This time, Japan won Group E after 2-1 wins over Germany and Spain and is in the knockout round for back-to-back tournaments for the first time in team history.
For Japan, the first trip to the quarter-finals in four attempts is at stake.
“Japan is a team that does not give up,” said Croatian coach Zlatko Dalić. “They conceded goals at the start of the game, both against Germany and Spain, but they came back. They had a lot of confidence in themselves and that is a great virtue of the Japanese national team.”
Croatia, France’s runners-up at the 2018 World Cup, is making its third appearance in the knockout round. Croatia defeated Romania in 1998 to progress to the semi-finals, then defeated Denmark 3-2 on penalties in 2018 to progress to the final game – a 4-2 defeat to reigning World Cup champions France.
It is the first time that Croatia will play against an Asian team in a World Cup knockout match after eight previous matches against European teams.
“It is essential for us that we are also disciplined and patient,” said Dalić. “We can’t make mistakes because Japan has the quality to punish those mistakes. We have to be good at falling back when we lose the ball.”
Croatia advanced despite two goalless draws in group play – equaling the number of winless games it had in the 2006, 2014 and 2018 tournaments, a 13-game streak.
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Jenna Fryer, The Associated Press