RIO DE JANEIRO, June 27- Three matches, four goals and one dream: Argentina star Lionel Messi and Brazilian idol Neymar remain on collision course as the most entertaining World Cup in decades enters the knockout rounds on Saturday.
The mouthwatering possibility of Brazil and Argentina meeting in the July 13 final has loomed closer ever since the South American giants were kept in opposite sides of the draw.
So far Barcelona team-mates Messi and Neymar have done everything in their power to stick to the script, almost single-handedly steering their teams through the first round into the last 16.
Messi, who began the tournament looking to cement his place in the pantheon of the game’s greatest players — if he isn’t there already — has produced man-of-the-match performances in each of his three games.
A jinking individual goal against Bosnia, an inspired injury-time winner against Iran and a two-goal contribution against Nigeria have dispelled the theory that Messi may buckle under the weight of expectation.
“Now we can’t make any mistakes as any error will see us getting knocked out,” said Messi after Argentina’s win over Nigeria.
Messi and his team-mates now travel to Sao Paulo to face Group E runners-up Switzerland in the last 16 on Tuesday.
– Neymar on right track –
Before that, Brazil’s poster-boy Neymar will aim to inspire the hosts once more when they face an awkward tie with Chile in Belo Horizonte on Saturday.
Like Messi, Neymar has thrived on the responsibility of being his team’s main man. He scored twice as Brazil came back from 1-0 down against Croatia to win their opening game 3-1, and added two more in the 4-1 rout of Cameroon as Brazil topped Group A.
“We are on the right track and are growing all the time as we get closer to making our dream come true,” the 22-year-old said.
Yet if Argentina and Brazil are to meet in the Maracana Stadium in a little over a fortnight, there will be obstacles along the way.
The first round may have been notable for the shock demise of European heavyweights such as defending champions Spain and Euro 2012 finalists Italy, but other threats remain.
In Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, the Dutch have two of the deadliest attackers in the tournament, and in a competition where high-quality defending has been notably absent, that could be crucial.
The Dutch will fancy their chances of beating Mexico in the second round to remain on course for a possible meeting with Argentina in the semi-finals.
– Germany rumble on –
Germany also look to be building formidable momentum after coming out on top of a demanding Group G ahead of the United States, Ghana and Portugal.
Bayern Munich striker Thomas Mueller has notched four goals in three games, including a superb hat-trick in the 4-0 drubbing of Portugal, and Joachim Loew’s side ought to be too strong for Algeria in Porto Alegre on Monday.
The biggest obstacle to a possible semi-final meeting with Brazil is likely to come in the quarter-finals where the Germans could face a revitalised France who have produced some of the most scintillating attacking play so far.
Although a changed France line-up was held to a 0-0 draw against Ecuador in their final Group E game, Didier Deschamps’ side excelled in big wins over Honduras (3-0) and Switzerland (5-2), with Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema finally producing his form for Les Bleus.
France play Nigeria in the last 16 in Brasilia on Monday.
Arguably the dark horses of the knockout round could be a burgeoning Colombia, who wrapped up their third win of the tournament with a 4-1 demolition job of Japan.
The Colombians face a Luis Suarez-less Uruguay at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday where the prize would be their first ever appearance in the quarter-finals.