Best still to come from World Cup favourites after shocks galore
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Best still to come from World Cup favourites after shocks galore

DOHA: The World Cup in Qatar has already delivered plenty of major shocks, but as it moves into the knockout phase, the top contenders including Brazil and France have plenty to prove.

This is the first World Cup since the South Africa tournament in 2010 in which teams from Asia, Africa and North America have all been represented in the last 16.

Brazil remain the favourites to claim a sixth World Cup and end Europe’s recent dominance on the global stage.

Tite’s side surely need Neymar back from the ankle injury he suffered in the opening win over Serbia, but they have a dazzling array of attacking talent beyond the world’s most expensive footballer.

They are usually rock-solid defensively, even though a side with nine changes to the starting line-up lost their final group game against Cameroon.

Brazil have not yet faced top opposition and will expect to cruise past South Korea on Monday, with Croatia or Japan then awaiting them in the quarter-finals.

A mouthwatering showdown with Argentina in the semi-finals remains a possibility, with Lionel Messi and his team-mates recovering from their shock loss to Saudi Arabia to beat Mexico and Poland.

If Messi’s team get past Australia, they could find themselves up against the Netherlands in the last eight, although the Dutch must first overcome a tough United States team.

Argentina came into the World Cup unbeaten in 36 games and with expectations high that they could win the trophy for a third time, but coach Lionel Scaloni has played down their chances.

“We are not favourites,” he insisted. “We are a difficult team to beat, a team that will fight, but to think that because we won (against Poland) we are going to be champions would be totally mistaken.”

The other side of the draw is weighted towards Europe, despite elimination for Germany and Belgium.

Holders France are the team to beat and in Kylian Mbappe they have the most exciting player in the competition.

Didier Deschamps’ side eased through their group, even fielding an unrecognisable line-up in their final defeat by Tunisia as regulars were rested.

“We fulfilled our objective,” he said. “Now we will recuperate because a second competition is about to begin.”

History is not on the side of a France team looking to become the first since 1962 to successfully defend the World Cup, and they are on a possible collision course in the last eight with England.

Spain, the joint-top scorers in the group stage with England on nine goals, are also on their side of the draw.

Semi-finalists in 2018 and Euro 2020 runners-up, England are quietly growing in confidence.

“In Russia, we were just thinking: ‘Can we win a knockout game?’ Now there is more confidence and more experience of knockout matches,” said England manager Gareth Southgate.

LUSAIL, Qatar: A late goal by skipper Vincent Aboubakar ended Cameroon’s 20-year wait for a win at the World Cup as the Indomitable Lions bowed out in style by beating a much-changed Brazil 1-0 at the Lusail Stadium on Friday (Dec 2).

With qualification to the last 16 already in the bag after wins over Serbia and Switzerland, Brazil, seeking to claim the World Cup for the sixth time, still won Group G ahead of the Swiss on goal difference.

They will face Group H runners-up South Korea, who beat Portugal 2-1, in the next round.

Brazil’s first-ever defeat to an African opponent at a World Cup will, however, no doubt sting as their reserve players were left to rue the fact they did not take the chance handed to them by their coach.

Safe in the knowledge that a draw would secure top spot, while even a defeat might still be enough, Tite benched Vinicius Jr and made nine changes in all to the team that beat Switzerland 1-0 in their last match.

Losing, however, was not part of the plan.

“It’s a warning signal,” said the 39-year-old Dani Alves, one of the players brought in for the game.

“There is no weak rival. Here is the lesson, we need to stay switched on throughout the game. One detail and it’s over.

“We end today with the feeling that a beautiful day slipped through the hands of us players who weren’t playing much.”

Cameroon, whose last win at the World Cup was in 2002 against Saudi Arabia, were on the back foot for most of the match but sprung to life at the death. Aboubakar powered a header past Ederson then was sent off for collecting a second yellow for taking off his shirt in celebration.

Brazil had by far the larger share of possession and carved out many more chances than their opponents. But in the end it was Cameroon who got the only statistic that actually counted.

“We dominated the match and had several chances, the only thing missing was a goal,” said Eder Militao.

“We should have scored but a lack of attention in one play allowed them to score. It’s frustrating considering the way we played.”

The match played out in a subdued atmosphere in the cavernous Lusail Stadium, the tournament’s biggest venue, with Brazil’s reserves eager to impress but Tite’s side unable to assert their usual flair.

Gabriel Martinelli was Brazil’s liveliest player and nearly put the five-time champions ahead in the 14th minute when he was picked out by Fred’s ball over the top, but the Arsenal forward’s header drew a fine reaction save from Devis Epassy.

Cameroon offered nearly no attacking threat until the first half injury time, when Nicolas Moumi Ngamaleu’s cross was met with a powerful downward header by Bryan Mbeumo that Ederson clawed away one-handed at full stretch.

Tite had seen enough and made a triple change soon after the interval, bringing on Marquinho for the injured Alex Telles, and replacing Rodrygo and Fred with Everton Ribeiro and Bruno Guimaraes.

The substitutes stirred Brazil into a sudden flurry of chances with Epassy forced into action three times in as many minutes.

First, Martinelli stung the Cameroon keeper’s palms with a snap shot in the 56th minute.

Next, Militao tried his luck from the ensuing corner coaxing a fumble out of the Cameroon keeper, who recoverd to scramble the ball out to safety, before the lively Antony got in on the act, forced Epassy into a diving save to keep out his curling effort.

Tite sent on Pedro in the 64th minute and Raphinha in the 79th as Brazil sought to save their perfect record in the group, but Cameroon clung on until Aboubakar arrived in the right place at the right time to seize his moment.

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