The quarterfinal match-ups at the FIFA World Cup are starting to take shape as the knockout stage ramps up.
Japan take on 2018 runners-up Croatia in a first round of 16 match at 2am on Tuesday AEDT.
Japan finished top of Group E ahead of European heavyweights Spain and Germany, and will fancy their chances against Luka Modric’s ageing Croatia side.
The winner of that game will go on to face either Brazil or South Korea, who face off at 6am.
Brazil is one of the tournament favourites but is yet to reach top gear in Qatar.
The South American giants will be red hot favourites to progress to the quarter finals.
If both Japan and South Korea lose, there will be no Asian teams left in the World Cup after Australia lost to Argentina in the round of 16.
The group stage was hailed as one of the best ever after all sorts of history was created — and now we look like getting the best quarter finals in recent memory.
As well as an England-France blockbuster, fellow powerhouses Argentina and the Netherlands have locked in a monster occasion.
And there’s a distinct possibility the other half of the draw could produce Brazil v Croatia and Portugal v Spain. That would be four dream match-ups.
Neymar nearing return for Brazil
Neymar, whose $344million (AUD) transfer fee to PSG was the most expensive in history, could make his return to the World Cup stage as Brazil continue their bid to be crowned kings for a record-extending sixth time against South Korea.
The superstar forward has been absent for Brazil since spraining his ankle in his team’s opening Group G win against Serbia last month and their supporters have been sweating on his fitness ever since.
Coach Tite said Neymar would be assessed in Brazil’s final pre-game training session but gave a heavy hint that the Paris Saint-Germain attacker would start.
“He’s going to train this afternoon and if he’s OK, he will play tomorrow,” Tite told reporters.
Neymar’s return would be a big boost as Brazil have scored just once since he fell foul to his ankle injury and lost Arsenal forward Gabriel Jesus for the rest of the World Cup on the weekend.
Japan out to avoid early elimination
Japan was eliminated in the first knockout round four years ago in Russia when they threw away a two-goal lead to lose 3-2 to Belgium with the last kick of the game.
Japanese defender Yugo Nagatomo said the defeat had been on his mind for the past four years and he is ready to wipe away the memory against Croatia.
“The past four years have been tough for me but I think we have all overcome that and improved as players,” he said.
“I have been playing for Japan for almost 15 years and as far as I can see, this is the strongest team we’ve ever had at the World Cup.”
Japan has made the round of 16 at six World Cups but it has never managed to progress to the quarterfinals.
Captain Maya Yoshida said the players have had to “sacrifice a lot over the past four years” and urged them to make it worth the effort.
“For Japanese football to move up a level, we have to become the kind of team that can consistently get through to the knockout rounds at the World Cup,” he said.
“We can’t be satisfied with what we’ve achieved — we have to write a new chapter in our history.”