Messi breaks Pele record as Argentina, Brazil close in on World Cup

It is often the case that Brazil — or more frequently, of late, Argentina — have to dig themselves out of problems in South America’s FIFA World Cup qualifiers. Not this time. With the competition at the halfway stage, the big two have already almost accumulated enough points to book their place in Qatar — despite playing a game less than everyone else.

Brazil have a 100% record against eight opponents. Lionel Messi and Argentina have five wins and three draws. All that is missing is their meeting. It is indeed a shame that their match last Sunday ended up being interrupted and then suspended after Brazilian health officials objected to the participation of four Argentine players they say broke quarantine rules. We would have been able to learn much more about them than anything that happened in their routine home wins on Thursday.

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At least history was made in Buenos Aires. Argentina could play in front of some of their public — the stadium was allowed to be filled to 20% capacity — and celebrate their Copa America win in style. Bolivia is usually a home banker and so it proved. Messi helped himself to a hat trick in a 3-0 win, and his first goal was one of typical but nevertheless stunning reduced space genius. Bolivia tried to pack the edge of the area, but Messi artfully slipped a defender and curled a shot into the far corner as if he had picked up the ball and stuck it in the net with his hand. It brought his international scoring record level with the great Pele. Two more — a right-footed finish and a smart rebound — took him out in front on his own as South America’s all-time top men’s goal scorer.

Messi’s new Paris Saint-Germain teammate Neymar is closing in on Pele’s record as well. He made one for Everton Ribeiro and scored the other in Brazil’s highly comfortable 2-0 win over Peru. He was not at his best and nor were Brazil — the 4-4-2 system chosen for this game arguably leaves them short of central midfield elaboration and restricts them too much to the counter attack. They are some way short of the fluidity they showed in coach Tite’s first 18 months in charge back in 2016-7. On the other hand, they have only conceded two in eight games, and rarely look likely to concede.

With Brazil and Argentina all but over the line already, the most interesting action was elsewhere. Third met fourth in Montevideo when Ecuador visited Uruguay. And the pair swapped places with Uruguay striking in stoppage time to seal a 1-0 win. For much of the game, Ecuador would have been the happier team. They have not had a good run this year — including the Copa America they have just one win in 10 matches. But all is not doom and gloom. They are looking competitive in the big games (a 0-1 loss and a 1-1 draw in two matches away to Brazil, a single goal defeat to Argentina and now this against Uruguay). And though they are not scoring too often in these clashes, they have some young players who are threatening goals. They interrupted the flow of Uruguay’s play successfully and posed a danger on the counter-attack.

For Uruguay it was a frustrating night. Even in the absence of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani they had looked fluid and incisive in Sunday’s win over Bolivia. Ecuador, though, were much tougher. There was a severe lack of penalty area presence, and, on a big night for him, playmaker Giorgian de Arrascaeta looked lightweight. But there are options on the bench. Burly centre-forward Maxi Gomez gave them more of a platform, and the recall of attacking midfielder Gaston Pereiro proved decisive. He ghosted in to the box to head home the vital goal.

With seven points, Uruguay were the big winners from September’s triple-header, which is probably just as well. Next month’s fixtures look to be much harder, and there is some competition on the block.

Thursday’s round confirmed that there are five teams chasing the four automatic qualifying slots. After two away draws, Colombia put some distance between them and the chasing pack with a 3-1 win at home to Chile. In the continued absence of James Rodriguez, playmaker Juan Fernando Quintero gave them some much needed extra imagination as they punished a Chile side who have picked up just one point from the three recent matches.

Chile were the big losers of the September triple-header, along with Bolivia, who also managed just one point, and Venezuela, who lost all three of their games.

After going into the campaign with such high hopes of a World Cup debut, Venezuela have had a disastrous run, suffering injuries, ill fortune, player unavailability and the resignation of a coach. They went into the September dates just four points adrift of the qualification places. The gap is now nine, and a 2-1 defeat away to Paraguay all but ends their hopes of making it to Qatar.

It was a sweet moment for Paraguay. Had they won at home to Venezuela in the last round of the Russia 2018 campaign then Paraguay, and not Peru, would have claimed fifth place and the playoff spot. This time they bagged all three points. But nine goals in eight games tells its own story. Coached by Marcelo Bielsa’s former assistant Eduardo Berizzo, they will have to start taking some El Loco-style risks if they are not to miss out on a third consecutive World Cup.

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