Brazil have hardly bristled with brilliance in getting to this stage, while Mexico have been one of the joys of the tournament, but scraped in after being slaughtered 3-0 by Sweden in their final group game.
Ahead of this tantalising tussle, we look at three tactical talking points.
CAN BRAZIL BURST INTO LIFE?
We saw it with France in their explosive 4-3 victory over Argentina on Saturday, they’d finally arrived at the 2018 World Cup.
Many of the giants and favourites for the trophy have been slow and sluggish in their opening three games – Germany totally flopped and failed to emerge from the group, while Argentina just about did but were woefully uninspiring and were deservedly swept away by Les Bleus.
Brazil have been far from their best, but you feel they are stirring. They were excellent in the first 45 minutes against Switzerland but poor against Costa Rica, with fortune favouring them. They did, however, get over the line and then put Serbia to sleep as qualification was secured. It’s now time for Tite’s troops to transform and take the tournament by storm.
With that in mind, for how much longer does Tite persist with misfiring forwards Gabriel Jesus and Willian?
Both were yet again alarmingly poor against Serbia. The Manchester City forward produced two unskilled touches and mustered just one shot on goal, while Willian was dispossessed four times.
Despite these statistics, both played the entire 90 minutes.
Just what does Roberto Firmino have to do to earn a starting spot? In 12 minutes against Switzerland he got off two shots – twice as many as Jesus, who played 93 minutes. And it was his leap and header that set up the breakthrough goal in the following 2-0 win over Los Ticos for Philippe Coutinho, despite the fact Jesus’ miscontrolled touch saw him credited with the assist.
PRESSING HOME THE ISSUE
After such a spineless performance to close out Group F against Sweden, most analysts are of the opinion that Mexico’s chances of progressing to the quarter-finals of the World Cup are even more perilous than originally thought.
But, oddly enough, taking on a heavyweight might well play into Mexico’s hands.
Against Germany in their opener, their high-press game and performances of their rapid attackers breaking on the counter-attack proved to be a masterstroke.
Germany couldn’t live with it and Brazil will be preparing to play the Juan Carlos Osario side that turned up for that first game.
Brazilian media have reported ahead of this game that the expectation around the camp will be Mexico will go for an energetic full-pitch press. This could put pressure on Brazil’s defensive line to be stoic in possession at the back, but any problems caused will undoubtedly also open up spaces for Canarinho’s stars to exploit in El Tri’s back-line.
Against Germany, Mexico enjoyed just 34 per cent of possession. So not having the ball, working hard without it and then making the most of the opportunities that came their way, works in their favour.
Against South Korea, Mexico enjoyed a 58-42 per cent possession advantage. They shipped three goals against Sweden but unbelievably dominated possession 67-33.
It clearly suits them to play a team who are better at keeping the ball.
So the issue now is how much of a psychological blow has that Sweden defeat dealt to Mexican confidence?
If they get back to basics and play to their strengths, El Tri can give Brazil a torrid time.
Speaking of psychology…
MEXICO NEED MENTAL TOUGHNESS
The North Americans have never beaten the South Americans in four prior World Cup encounters (one draw, three defeats) and have been outscored 11-0 in those skirmishes.
And while El Tri have featured in the round of 16 but not made it to the quarter-finals in each of the last six tournaments, stretching back to 1986, this game will as much come down to Mexico’s mental fortitude. A disappointing defeat to Sweden is a mere byproduct.
Mexico’s rotten form in the last 16 is even more agonising when breaking down the fine margins that have led to heartbreak.
Defeat on penalties to Bulgaria in 1994 began what would become a barren run. They blew a lead against Germany four years later and once more against Argentina in 2006.
Conceding twice to the Netherlands in the final minutes four years ago was perhaps the deepest cut, especially with a controversial penalty awarded for a theatrical Arjen Robben dive in stoppage time seeing the Dutch scythe down their hopes yet again.
The quest to reach the “quinto partido” (fifth match) at a World Cup has now become a crusade. “There’s no greater memory than making history with a fifth match,” said Mexico captain Andres Guardado.
“We’re different players in terms of the mental aspect, but we know we’ll be judged by whether we get through or not.”
Mexico will surely snipe and swarm around Brazil’s players and play at an extremely high tempo.
But aside from the manager pleading for his players to press and scurry around the pitch, captain Guardado’s passion and wise words will do as much to inspire his players as any magical managerial tactic or ploy.
Marco Asensio will make his first start of the tournament after Fernando Hierro elected to drop Andres Iniesta for the round-of-16 clash with Russia.
Koke will line up alongside Sergio Busquets in a midfield two while Marco Asensio, Isco and David Silva complement striker Diego Costa – who survives Hierro’s changes despite an indifferent tournament.
Nacho will also start at right-back instead of Dani Carvajal, who had faced a race against time to be fully fit for the World Cup.
Spain: (4-2-3-1): De Gea; Nacho, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Busquets, Koke; D. Silva, Isco, Asensio; Costa.
Belgium have one eye on a possible quarter-final showdown with Brazil as they face Japan in a last-16 clash on Monday.
Roberto Martinez’s side have emerged as contenders at this World Cup with their ‘Golden Generation’ of precocious talent tipped to mount a deep run into the knockout rounds.
The Belgians topped Group G after defeating England 1-0 in their last outing on the back of straightforward wins over Panama and Tunisia.
They were the top scorers from the first phase with nine goals, Romelu Lukaku scoring four of them and the Manchester United forward is expected to return after missing the England win with an ankle knock.
However, Martinez will no doubt want to guard against complacency when they take on an unfancied Japan after being eliminated by Wales in their Euro 2016 quarter-final.
With that in mind, we examine some of the key talking points ahead of the last-16 contest.
JAPAN’S DREAM IN COLOUR
Few other nations emphasise the auspiciousness of colours quite in the way Japanese culture does but during this World Cup, their tradition has paid dividends.
Indeed, red and yellow are viewed as favorable and the Samurai Blue owe their progression through to the last-16 because of those two colours.
First, there was the early dismissal for Colombia’s key midfielder Carlos Sanchez, which gifted boss Akira Nishino a perfect platform to prosper as his side eventually overran the South Americans in a 2-1 triumph.
Then, despite losing to an already eliminated Poland in their final clash, they progressed from Group H because of fewer yellow cards after equalling Senegal in points and goal difference.
Now, this might be pulling a thread and hoping for the best here but Japan really do require all the assistance they can garner because they’re comfortably the weakest side left in the tournament.
But Nishino and his men can draw strength from tradition once again because Japan take on Belgium, aka the Red Devils, and it will be hosted at the Rostov Arena, home to FC Rostov who’s club colours are blue – Japan’s most prominent lucky colour.
We don’t want to ground our analysis purely on superstition but if Japan do shockingly make it through to the quarter-finals, colours may well have played a part.
BELGIUM’S TIME TO RISE
So far, so good for Belgium. Despite the criticism of Martinez’s tactical deficiencies going into the tournament – at the back not the front – Belgium have emerged from Group G intact and looking good in attack.
With the draw opening up slightly after the eliminations of defending champions Germany and now Argentina and Portugal, the Belgians won’t fear Brazil or Mexico in the quarter-finals while either Uruguay or France is a winnable fixture in the semis.
The golden generation is yet to come close to adding trophy shine to their top billing but with a squad of such rich talent all in their mid and late 20s, now is the time for the Red Devils to come of age.
And it will be a case of pick your demon for Japan. Kevin De Bruyne is their sorcerer, Eden Hazard a buzzing hellhound while ahead of those two Lukaku has been in monstrous goalscoring form.
There were worrying signs against both Tunisia and Panama that they can be exploited with the gaps behind their advancing wing-backs but Japan are unlikely to possess the type of weapons to hurt them there.
Even if they did, Thibaut Courtois is one of the best goalkeepers in world football and hasn’t been plagued by the type of mistakes which have blighted his Premier League rival David De Gea in Russia.
Martinez’s men are well balanced and Japan provide them with an opportunity to lay down a knock out marker.
LUKAKU FITNESS CONCERNS
Lukaku suffered what Martinez described as “a really difficult knock” in the second group game win over Tunisia which forced the striker to miss training and then the England clash last week.
The Catalan boss moved to ally fears over the 25-year-old’s fitness ahead of their last-16 fixture but there will be concern regardless.
“Lukaku is fully fit, he trained and has no problems. He’ll be available, 100 per cent,” Martinez said in the pre-match build-up.
And Martinez needs Lukaku fit and firing because understudy Michy Batshuayi hardly inspires confidence when he’s slamming the ball into his own face.
With 23 goals in his last 20 Belgium games, Lukaku is in fine fettle, prospering with the playmakers behind him and tearing through sides head on rather than with his back to goal as was the case with United last season.
He’s plundered four goals in Russia and is chasing the golden boot and that added incentive can only be to his side’s benefit.