MOSCOW — With soccer powers dropping out of the World Cup left and right, Monday’s knockout matches in Russia were about passing tests. Neymar had already avoided the fate of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by helping his Brazil team get out of its group. But could he carry the Brazilians when it mattered? Answer: a goal and an assist as the five-time champs shut down Mexico 2-0.
Belgium, for all the talent it showed in winning its group, faced lingering questions about whether it had the mental toughness to go much beyond that. And many wondered whether Japan deserved to be in the round of 16 at all. The answers, delivered over a five-goal second half that saw the Europeans come back from two goals down to find an injury-time winner: Japan absolutely belonged, and Belgium has the stomach to fight back.