Who: Brazil vs South Korea
Where: Stadium 974
When: December 5, 10pm (19:00 GMT)
Brazil head into Monday’s World Cup last-16 tie against South Korea preoccupied with the health of the great Pele and with coach Tite wondering whether to recall the Selecao Canarinho’s current number 10 Neymar after an ankle injury kept him out of the last two matches.
Tite used his news conference before Friday’s final group game against Cameroon to wish Pele a speedy recovery after the all-time great was admitted to hospital in Sao Paulo during the week.
The three-time World Cup winner, now aged 82, has been undergoing a “re-evaluation” of the chemotherapy he had following surgery to remove a colon tumour in September last year.
Brazil fans also unfurled a banner with a “get well soon” message for Pele before the Cameroon game, which the Selecao lost 1-0, their first defeat at the group stage since 1998.
Brazil have a fearsome range of attacking options, even with Gabriel Jesus returning home injured, but they have scored just once since Neymar came off with a sprained ankle in their opening 2-0 win over Serbia on November 24.
“With his return, the whole team will improve,” said Richarlison, scorer of both goals against Serbia, on Friday. “I hope he comes back. Everyone saw how much we missed him in the last two games. I think him coming back will make me better.”
If Brazil win at Doha’s Stadium 974 they will advance to a quarter-final against Japan or Croatia, with a last-four showdown against great rivals Argentina still on the cards.
South Korea were the second lowest-ranked side to make the knockout stage but the Tottenham Hotspurs forward was clear that the Brazilians won’t be taking them lightly.
“They are an aggressive and strong team. We can’t afford to make mistakes,” warned Richarlison.
Still, the South Koreans will know that the odds are against them. Coach Paulo Bento’s side has recent experience of how chastening an experience it can be to take on Brazil. The teams met in a friendly in Seoul in June and Brazil romped to a 5-1 victory, with Neymar scoring two penalties.
But this has been a World Cup of upsets. Brazil, Belgium, Argentina and France – the world’s four top-ranked sides – have all lost to significantly less-fancied sides in the group stages of this tournament. Four-time winners Germany could not even make it to the knockouts.
The South Koreans have pulled off their own surprise win too: Their tournament looked to be over until substitute Hwang Hee-chan popped up in injury time to score the winner in a 2-1 victory over already qualified Portugal on Friday.
They will rely on talisman Son Heung-min to lead them against Brazil on Monday, after he ran himself into the ground on Friday to ensure his team reached the last 16.
“This is great but our tournament is not over,” said Son – who happens to be Richarlison’s Spurs teammate – following the emotions of the dramatic win over Portugal.
“We’ve always talked about reaching the round of 16 as our objective but we should now try to go beyond that,” Son, who shed tears of joy, told Korean media in Doha.
The South Koreans are the only Asian side to have reached the semi-finals before, when they were co-hosts with Japan in 2002. On Monday, they will be hoping to shock Brazil on their way towards making history again.