MONTEVIDEO, March 25, (AFP): Argentina avenged their Copa America final defeat to Chile with a 2-1 victory on Thursday as Ecuador scrambled a late draw with Paraguay to preserve their unbeaten start to South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying competition.
Goals from Angel Di Maria and defender Gabriel Mercado secured a vital three points for Argentina in Santiago after Chile had taken an 11th-minute lead through Felipe Gutierrez at the National Stadium.
Victory was sweet for Argentina, who were beaten on penalties by Chile at the same venue in the final of last year’s Copa America, extending the two-time world champions title drought.
More importantly, the win got Argentina’s 2018 qualification bid firmly back on the road after a shaky start last year which saw them win only one of their opening four games.
“I’m very happy with the three points as it was important to come here and get a win,” said Argentina’s returning captain Lionel Messi, who had missed the first four matches of qualifying last year because of injury.
“I missed being with my team-mates. I felt really good in the first half but I was a bit tired in the second half,” the Barcelona superstar added.
Argentina recovered after a rocky opening spell which culminated with Gutierrez’s header opener after 11 minutes.
Yet Argentina got back on level terms after 20 minutes Paris Saint-Germain star Di Maria exchanged passes with Ever Banega inside the penalty area and curled home a right-footed strike past Chile goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.
Five minutes later Argentina took the lead.
Di Maria lofted a speculative pass into the Chilean penalty area and when Nicolas Otamendi’s knock-down found Messi, the striker held off the attentions of Chile defender Mauricio Isla to square for Mercado, who volleyed home from close range.
Chile upped the tempo after the break and created the better chances, with Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez causing nervous moments in the Argentina defence with a 52nd minute lob that drifted wide.
Chile’s Fabian Orellana and Mauricio Pinilla both had good chances in the closing minutes but Argentina held on.
Elsewhere on Thursday, Ecuador scrambled a 2-2 draw with Paraguay in Quito thanks to a controversial injury-time equaliser from Angel Mena.
Ecuador, looking to extend their 100 percent record from the opening four matches, had looked to be heading for their first defeat after Paraguay recovered from Enner Valencia’s 19th minute effort to lead through two goals from Dario Lezcano.
But when Mena latched onto a through ball from what looked like an offside position, Ecuador grabbed a share of the spoils.
The late blow left Paraguay coach Ramon Diaz distraught.
“Every journalist knows that the second goal was offside,” Diaz said. “It’s a shame because Ecuador has a great team and a great coach. They don’t need to get help like this. We deserved the three points.”
An injury-time goal also proved decisive in La Paz, where Colombia snaffled a 3-2 win over Bolivia thanks to Edwin Cardona’s strike in the second minute of stoppage time.
The Colombians looked to have squandered a straightforward victory after Bolivia fought back from 2-0 down to level at 2-2 at the Estadio Hernando Siles.
But just when the Bolivians were preparing to celebrate a well-earned point, Colombia swept forward.
Teenage winger Marlos Moreno broke down the left flank and picked out Mexico-based midfielder Cardona, who rifled a low shot into the bottom right-hand corner. Colombia took the lead after goals from Real Madrid star James Rodriguez and AC Milan striker Carlos Bacca after 41 minutes.
However Bolivia were thrown a lifeline when Brazilian referee Wilton Pereira Sampaio harshly adjudged that Jeison Murillo had handballed inside the area early in the second half.
Juan Carlos Arce duly stepped up to blast the penalty into the top corner and it got better in the 62nd minute when Alejandro Chumacero lashed in the equaliser for 2-2.
In Lima, Peru needed an injury-time equaliser from substitute Raul Ruidiaz to salvage a 2-2 draw with Venezuela.
Venezuela, rooted to the bottom of the standings with no points after four games, looked poised for their first win after taking a 2-0 lead through Romulo Otero and Mikel Villanueva.
But Peru’s veteran striker Paolo Guerrero pulled a goal back for the hosts and Ruidiaz popped up in the fourth minute of time added on to grab a draw.