Highly-touted Belgium enter their round of 16 tie with Japan knowing that a win will likely set up a quarter-final date with Brazil, but will Japan be the latest team to upset the odds in what has been a World Cup full of shocks?
Belgium will field a much-rested side after benching a host of regular starters in their 1-0 victory against England last week. Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne are all set to return to the Red Devils starting lineup for the knockout encounter with Japan in Rostov Arena.
Roberto Martinez’s team won all three of their Group G games, scoring nine goals along the way and in a tournament already shorn of some of its biggest names, their form suggests that the European side must be considered among the favorites to claim the World Cup trophy in Moscow later this month.
Martinez has a full squad to select from though a bruised knee sustained by Adnan Janujaz, scorer of the only goal in the win against England, may limit his involvement.
Japan, meanwhile, qualified for the last 16 by virtue of having a better disciplinary record than Senegal, who they finished deadlocked with in Group H. Akira Nishino’s side have already performed above expectations in Russia but will be concerned that they were unable to beat either Poland or Senegal after their shock opening round win against 10-man Colombia.
Nishino will have to decide whether to bring the creative trio of Kagawa, Honda and Inui, all of whom were rested against Poland in their last match, back into the side as goal-scoring chances are expected to be at a premium in the face of a mean Belgian backline.
Leicester City striker Shinji Okazaki is Nishino’s one fitness concern, as the 115-times capped veteran hobbled off with an ankle injury in the defeat to Poland.
The winner of the tie will face the victors from Monday’s early kick-off between Brazil and Mexico in Samara Arena.