Brazil against Mexico is a tie with the allure of the World Cup oozing out of it from every blade of grass, bead of sweat, and rainbow flick.
The Seleção have the winning pedigree and the stars; El Tri have the ever-present capacity to cause an upset.
Interestingly, both teams have two main stars to put on the poster – the man their nation is depending on, and the man that might actually carry them forwards.
Neymar and Javier Hernández are the faces that would be on the billboards, but Philippe Coutinho and Hirving Lozano are two young men who have arguably made the biggest impact for their nation at this summer’s tournament so far.
How they got on in the groups
If this preview had been written before the third round of group games, the tone would be very different.
Mexico looked in the ascendancy, having dealt a crushing blow to Germany before dispatching of South Korea. Brazil, meanwhile, had struggled against Switzerland and Costa Rica.
Brazil never deserved anything other than a win against Costa Rica, though, and their progression through the group stage matches makes a nice little upward curve of performance quality.
Mexico had the exact opposite. The win against the World Cup holders was a euphoric high (although in truth Germany created plenty of chances against them), the victory against South Korea was functional, then the loss against Sweden was dismal.
They could have joined Uruguay, Croatia and Belgium as the only teams to take nine points from the group stage, facing Sweden in the first knock-out round – instead they face Brazil, and their wait to make it past the round of 16 looks like it will go on. They’ve made it to this stage and no further in every World Cup since 1994.
Brazil have struggled to properly build play so far during this World Cup, and with Mexico having shown against Brazil that they’re capable of sitting back and counter-attacking, the problem may well persist.
Coutinho has emerged as the star of the Brazil side, continuing a season which has only continued to get better for him. The narrative of armchair psychology says that Neymar would like it all to be about him, but even an arch narcissist would be able to see that playing a team game to stand a better chance of lifting the World Cup is a good thing to do.
The mere presence of Neymar may also help Brazil’s other attacking talents – of which there are many – find spaces. The truly elite players force defences to focus on them, often trying to man-mark them out of matches, and if Mexico do this then it could let Coutinho, Gabriel Jesus, Paulinho, or Roberto Firmino in with a chance.
Mexico, meanwhile, are blisteringly fast in attack.
They’ve set themselves up well – for the most part, Sweden aside – and Lozano’s goal in the opener put him on the map as one of the tournament’s breakout stars.
Brazil are weak at full-back defensively, and they will have to be careful that Lozano isn’t able to exploit this and get a run at their ageing centre-backs.
Tite is an intelligent coach, though, and may set his side up to gum up the game and win ugly rather than risk allowing Mexico into the match.
It could be an extremely entertaining match if both sides played to their most attacking and expansive bests. With so much on the line, though, and both sides having struggled at various points in the group it also has the potential to be quite a drab affair.
While it would be fantastic to see Mexico in the quarter-finals for the first time since 1986, Brazil haven’t exited the competition this early since 1990. History itches to be made, but the two teams meet with their form going in opposite directions.