DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Neymar appeared to have fully recovered from his ankle injury and was expected to return to Brazil's starting line-up against Korea Republic in the round of 16 at the FIFA World Cup today.
A smiling Neymar trained with teammates yesterday in a practice session that was partially open to media. He appeared to no longer be bothered by the injury that kept him out of Brazil's previous two matches.
Coach Tite had said earlier in the day that Neymar would play if all went well in the team's final training session before the match against Korea Republic.
The Brazil forward missed two group matches after injuring his right ankle in the team's opening win over Serbia. He was back training for the first time on Saturday.
Tite said he planned to use Neymar from the opening whistle instead of as a substitute, if he's healthy enough to play.
"I prefer to use my best player from the start," Tite said. "It's the coach who has to make that decision and take on that responsibility."
Tite said left back Alex Sandro is out because of a hip injury, but right back Danilo will be available after recovering from a right-ankle injury.
Brazil struggled without the playmaker but still won their group, despite a loss to Cameroon in the last match.
"Obviously we won't say that it's better to face Brazil when Neymar is playing but I always prefer when the best players are there," South Korea Coach Paulo Bento said.
Korea Republic advanced after a surprise win over Portugal in the team's last group game, making it to the last 16 for the first time in 12 years.
Tests after the Serbia match showed ligament damage in Neymar's ankle and it wasn't clear if he would be able to play again in Qatar. His ankle looked bad, with a lot of swelling, and doctors wouldn't say if he would recover during the tournament.
But after undergoing intensive physiotherapy treatment Neymar improved and was back training on Saturday. In footage released by the Brazilian football federationhe appeared to be in good condition, doing drills with the ball and taking shots on goal without signs of his injury.
Midfielder Fred replaced Neymar against Switzerland. With Brazil already through to the knockout phase Tite rotated the entire squad against Cameroon.
This will be the first time Brazil and Korea Republic will meet in an official match, with the Brazilians winning six of their seven friendlies including 5-1 in June. Korea Republic's only win came in 1999.
"We can't think it's going to be an easy game like it was in that friendly," Brazil Captain Thiago Silva said. "Now it's the World Cup and they've advanced in a very tough group. We have a lot of respect for them."
South Korea advanced in Qatar thanks to a dramatic stoppage-time goal by Hwang Hee-chan in a 2-1 victory over Portugal. The team had drawn with Uruguay in its opener and then lost to Ghana.
Hwang was expected to be in the starting line-up again against Brazil after missing the team's first two games because of a hamstring injury.
Bento complained of the short three-day rest period between games from the group stage to the round of 16, saying it hurt Korea Republic more than Brazil, which rested their regular starters in their final group match.
"It's not fair," Bento said. "I think that it has to do with the new FIFA reality which is to create worse conditions for the less-favoured teams and probably better conditions for the more-favoured ones."
Korea Republic are trying to advance past the round of 16 for the first time since their historic run as a co-host in 2002, when they made it to the semi-finals and ended up fourth. The Koreans were eliminated in the group stage both in 2014 and 2018.
Brazil are trying to win their first World Cup title since the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea. The Selecao has made it to the quarter-finals in every tournament since then, with its best run being the semi-final appearance at home in 2014.
The winner of the match will face either Japan or 2018 runner-up Croatia in the quarter-finals.