The group stages are over, and now it's time for the do-or-die sudden death of the knockouts to begin. The round of 16 gets underway on Saturday, with tournament hosts Brazil taking on Chile in Belo Horizonte in what promises to be a fantastic game. Brazil look like they're really yet to click into top gear, having stuttered en route to topping a fairly simple Group A, and if anyone can take advantage of their vulnerability, it's the on-form Roja.
Chile were billed as a team to watch ahead of the tournament, but there were always questions over how they'd be able to replicate coach Jorge Sampaoli's attacking style on the world stage. They answered them emphatically by progressing through a tough group pretty comfortably, despite suffering a defeat to the Netherlands in their last game. They're a fearless, attack-minded unit, and shouldn't be intimidated by the heat of the home fans.
Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari should have a full-strength squad available, though we could still see changes with the Seleção having been pretty average throughout the World Cup so far. The most likely change is Fernandinho in for the unspectacular Paulinho in the midfield pivot, though striker Fred is another player whose performances have been poor so far. However, Scolari's a coach who doesn't particularly like to change his preferred lineup, so it's perfectly possible they'll stay unchanged.
Chile too could stay unchanged, though it's likely that coach Sampaoli will reintroduce Arturo Vidal to their midfield after he was left out of their lineup against the Netherlands while still not at full fitness. If he does drop to the bench, Felipe Gutiérrez is likely to take his place.
Projected lineups (left to right)
Brazil (4-2-3-1): Júlio César; Marcelo, David Luiz, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves; Luiz Gustavo, Fernandinho; Neymar, Oscar, Hulk; Fred.
Neymar vs. Mauricio Isla and Francisco Silva - Neymar entered the World Cup carrying the weight of a nation on his shoulders, and so far, he's coped just fine. Neymar has been the shining light in a Brazil team that has been a little underwhelming thus far, producing moments of genius that could prove decisive in the knockout stages. His lively movement and brilliant trickery will no doubt be the focus of attention for Chile's wing-back Mauricio Isla and right centre-back Francisco Silva, and they may well have to double up on him to cut him out of the game.
Will Brazil's disjointed midfield come together? - This isn't necessarily a matchup between the two opposing sides, but rather a Brazilian internal one. Neymar has undoubtedly been excellent so far, but perhaps his excellence should come as concern for coach Scolari as much as a positive -- he's the only one of his attacking players to deliver. Unlike at last year's Confederations Cup, when Brazil looked like a terrifyingly cohesive unit, they've looked rather disjointed so far, relying on moments of individual brilliance to bail them out. If they can't find a way to recapture last year's form, and link their midfield and attack more effectively, they'll eventually be found out.
Alexis Sánchez vs. Marcelo - There's no doubt that Alexis Sánchez is Chile's most dangerous attacking threat, with the winger having had a great World Cup so far. He's nominally a striker in their 3-4-1-2, though he spends most of his time drifting out to the right flank, where he can whip a dangerous cross into the box or skip inside and have a go himself. With Brazil left back Marcelo so attack-minded, Sánchez could take advantage of the space he leaves in behind on the counter.
Brazil haven't been great so far, but it's not hard to imagine them coming together as the tournament wears on. This game really could go either way, but I just fancy the Seleção to do enough to eliminate the most fun team we've seen in the World Cup so far. The meanies. 2-1 Brazil.