World Cup: Last-16 games preview

Will Brazil's forward Neymar light up knockout stages of the World Cup? Picture: AFP
Will Brazil's forward Neymar light up knockout stages of the World Cup? Picture: AFP
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A PREVIEW of the first four games as the World Cup moves into the knockout stages.

Brazil v Chile

According to Brazil skipper Thiago Silva, he was given yet another glimpse of the fervour building in the streets when a policeman stopped the car in which he was travelling to yesterday’s pre-match press conference in Belo Horizonte.

It wasn’t because any traffic offence had been committed. Rather, it was simply to ask for an autograph. “These are situations that show the love the people have for the Selecao,” he smiled.

It is hard to imagine just what players such as Silva, and of course Neymar, are feeling as they prepare to take on Chile this afternoon in their last-16 clash at the Mineirao stadium, with the stakes growing ever higher for the host country.

Indeed, even in Sao Paulo, in the tournament’s opening match against Croatia, Thiago admitted he did not recognise himself. “In the first match I did not look like I was Thiago Silva,” he said, as he conceded that nerves had served to inhibit him.

“I was too emotional,” he added, before turning to manager Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was seated next to him. “This guy next to me, he is very special. He is strong for us, and is there even when we have family issues. He is always there for us. I am going to stop talking now, because I am an emotional person, and I might start crying.”

This isn’t necessarily what you expect to hear from the caption of a national team. But then Thiago Silva fears something that has not happened since 1950. Even then, when Brazil’s dreams of winning the World Cup on home soil were dashed, they did at least make it to the final. Being knocked out in the last 16 is not something that can be borne.

If Thiago Silva sounds like a man on the edge, that might be because he is one – both he and Scolari are leaders of a band of men who cannot countenance the idea of failure today. There are two successful clubs in Belo Horizonte – Cruzeiro, who are the current Brazilian league champions, and Atletico Mineiro, the Copa Libertadores holders – but everyone in the city is pulling for one team this afternoon, as are Brazilians all over the country.

As well as Thiago Silva and Scolari, men who occupy positions of authority in the Brazil camp, much rests on the shoulders of Neymar who, despite not being present yesterday, was a hot topic of discussion, as he always is in Brazil.

Both Thiago Silva and Scolari were asked to judge Neymar against Messi, with the questions unsurprisingly posed by journalists from Argentina. Scolari refused to be drawn, stating that he would give his opinion “in 10 to15 years’ time”.

One thing he did add was that Neymar did not care about such targets as being the best player in the world. “He does not play to be the best in the world, he plays to do the best for Brazil and because he wants Brazil to be the world champions,” he said. Chile will do everything to take advantage of the pressure surrounding the hosts. But they have revealed one concern – though even this is part of their game-plan.

“The only thing I fear is the refereeing,” said Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez on Thursday, as a sense of paranoia seemed to take hold of Chile. They even halted their training session earlier in the day after a helicopter from Brazilian television was spotted hovering overhead.

The resultant delay to the press conference did not go down well with Chilean journalists, who were forced to wait in the intense heat in the street outside the side’s Toca da Raposa II base, which the Chile national team have hired from Cruzeiro.

However, many of these reporters were singing from the same hymn sheet as the team yesterday as English referee Howard Webb’s role in the outcome was being openly discussed, much to the annoyance of Rodrigo Paiva, director of communications at the Brazil Football Federation.

“We are going to talk about this only once,” Paiva said, when a question from the floor had sought to deal with the subject of the referee, who, it was suggested, “might deal with local needs”. Webb was in charge when Brazil and Chile met at the same stage in South Africa four years ago, when Brazil ran out easy 3-0 winners.

However, it appeared the Chileans had an issue with referees at Brazil games during this World Cup, rather than with Webb specifically. Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura caused consternation and no little unease for members of opposition teams due to play Brazil when he awarded a highly dubious penalty in the hosts’ 3-1 win over Croatia following what was generally felt was a dive by Fred.

Having previously been a smiling, genial presence as he stood next to Scolari and Thiago, Paiva drew up a chair and become deadly serious.

“The press in Chile have stressed this issue during the week and it is something that is immature,” he stressed. “This kind of pressure is ridiculous. Talking about this is not a lack of respect towards Fifa, or to the referee himself or to the Brazilian Selecao or to the people who work here in a very serious manner, for a country with 100 years of football history and of a winning history – it is a lack of respect to the Brazilian people.

“Brazil doesn’t need a referee to win a football match,” he added. “You should respect a little bit more the Brazilian Selecao and the Brazilian people.”

Strangely, the official responsible for ensuring that a positive message is delivered from the Brazilian camp sounded more rattled than anyone. Scolari and Thiago watched this amusing cameo from their seats further along the table.

Perhaps it even helped them relax. There might have been method in Paiva’s outburst. But the director of communications was certainly right in one respect; Brazil do not require a referee to win a football match. They need a steely disposition and more of the flair that they have displayed only in flashes thus far.

Uruguay v Colombia

LUIS Suarez flew home to Uruguay yesterday after being thrown out of the World Cup and banned from football for four months for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, who criticised the punishment as “excessive”.

Liverpool striker Suarez was met by outraged President Jose Mujica when he landed at a military base next to Uruguay’s main airport before dawn. After his arrival, Suarez, his wife and other family members were driven to a home he has in the small coastal town of Solymar.

The 27-year-old striker has not spoken publicly since Fifa ruled on Thursday that he cannot play in Uruguay’s next nine competitive matches and suspended him from the game for four months, meaning he misses his country’s last-16 clash with in-form Colombia at the Maracana this evening.

Fifa Secretary General Jerome Valcke defended the decision, saying that Suarez’s previous misdemeanours on the pitch had been taken into account. The player has been banned twice before for biting during club games.

“If it’s the first time, it’s an incident. More than once, it is not any more an incident,” said Valcke. “That is why also the sanction, it has to be exemplary.”

He also said Suarez should seek treatment to help him avoid such incidents in the future. “I don’t know if it exists, but he should do something by himself because it’s definitely wrong.”

The ban has sparked fury in Suarez’s homeland and his victim Chiellini said he felt no anger towards the Uruguayan.

“Now inside me there’s no feelings of joy, revenge or anger against Suarez for an incident that happened on the pitch and that’s done,” the Juventus centre-back said yesterday in a statement on his website. “I believe that the proposed formula is excessive.”

“He is totally distraught. He never thought the punishment would be so severe,” said Alejandro Balbi, a member of the Uruguayan Football Association’s board and Suarez’s lawyer.

Poker brand 888 yesterday cancelled its sponsorship deal with Suarez just weeks after he became one of the company’s brand ambassadors.

“Regrettably, following his actions during Uruguay’s World Cup match against Italy on Tuesday, 888poker has decided to terminate its relationship with Luis Suarez with immediate effect,” it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman preferred to focus on the Uruguayan collective rather than Suarez when asked about the impact his suspension could have on their last-16 clash.

“We think of Uruguay’s strengths and they’re a top-notch opponent,” the Colombia coach said.

“They’re very experienced with a lot of ability and a wonderful coach who has done well in recent years.

“They were always going to be a difficult opponent. I’ve concentrated on the problems we’ve had with Colombia, with injuries, but we know this will be a difficult match against a very good team.” Pekerman refused to be drawn when asked if Suarez’s absence had led him to alter his tactics – “Uruguay are highly respected and have top-notch players” – and was coy when asked if the severity of the sanction was fair.

“Listen, currently this is a very sensitive, very delicate issue,” he said. “I understand it but our concern is Uruguay as a team. We are working in order to play against them tomorrow, that’s all.”

Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina echoed his manager’s sentiments, focusing on the threat posed by Uruguay.

“The most important thing now is to continue our work,” the Nice ’keeper said.

“Each national team has its own way of playing and its own line-up, and we’re concentrating on ours and what Colombia can show. We have to keep believing in what we can do.”

Netherlands v Mexico

THE World Cup’s highest-scoring team is about to meet arguably the tournament’s best goalkeeper.

If the free-scoring Netherlands want to progress to the quarter-finals in Brazil, they will have to do what only one man has done so far – beat Guillermo Ochoa.

The Mexico ’keeper has conceded just one goal, a late consolation strike by Croatia’s Ivan Perisic in Mexico’s 3-1 win.

The 28-year-old Ochoa kept out Samuel Eto’o as Mexico beat Cameroon 1-0 and then delivered one of the performances of the tournament the last time he appeared in Fortaleza, denying Neymar twice with spectacular saves and Thiago Silva late in the 0-0 draw with Brazil. When the Brazil match ended, Mexico’s players lined up to hug their man-of-the-match ’keeper.

“We respect [the Netherlands] as we do with all of the other teams, but we know that they are among the favourites to win the cup and that does not scare us, it motivates us,” Ochoa said.

Striker-turned-defender Dirk Kuyt is confident the Dutch, who have scored ten times in three group matches including hammering in a stunning five against defending champions Spain, can find a way past Ochoa, too, tomorrow in Fortaleza’s Arena Castelao.

Mexico are in the last 16 for the sixth straight time but their tournament has ended at this stage on each occasion.

“We talk about not only beating Holland, we aspire to beat every great team and play not just a fifth match, we want to win it all,” said defender Miguel Layun. The winners go on to play either Costa Rica or Greece in the quarter-finals in Salvador.

Greece v Costa Rica

A SOLID defence used to be Greece’s modus operandi while Costa Rica traditionally relied on maverick individuals but the stereotypes have been shed in this World Cup where the two teams face a last-16 clash tomorrow in Recife.

Costa Rica turned heads by finishing above Uruguay, Italy and England in Group D and were organised at the back and quick on the break while their overall team ethic stood out.

Greece, who snatched the runners-up spot in Group C after a last-gasp Georgios Samaras penalty gave them a 2-1 win over Ivory Coast, looked anything but organised, but were lively in attack.

“We showed against Ivory Coast how well we can defend but also how good we can be in attack,” said Greece coach Fernando Santos.

Costa Rica midfielder Yeltsin Tejeda said: “We were thinking more about Colombia and the Ivory Coast and in the end came the least expected team. Now we have to change the video cassette.”