SAO PAULO: The return of Lionel Messi to an underpressure Argentina team has finally paid off. After a lackluster performance last week against Brazil last week, the five-time FIFA player of the year winner inspired a 3-0 victory over Colombia for the South American World Cup qualifiers on Tuesday. He scored the first with a breathtaking free kick, gave two assists, dribbled through Colombia’s defense several times and coordinated his teammates on the pitch. Argentina is now in fifth position with 19 points after 12 games, with six games to go. Colombia dropped to sixth with 18 points. The first four in South American qualifiers have automatic qualifying positions for the next World Cup and the fifth will be in an international playoff for a spot. The home victory eased some of the pressure on coach Edgardo Bauza, who received the dreaded vote of support from Argentina’s football association during the week. In Santiago, Alexis Sanchez scored twice after returning from injury to give Chile a 3-1 win over Uruguay.
Chile is now fourth, with 20 points, and Uruguay remained second with 23. Leaders Brazil beat eighth place Peru 2-0 in Lima to move closer to securing a spot at Russia 2018. Teenage striker Gabriel Jesus, who will soon move to Manchester City, scored his fifth goal in six games for the five-time World Cup champions. Elsewhere, third-placed Ecuador beat bottom-of-the -group Venezuela 3-0 at home and now has 20 points. Venezuela was stuck on five. Ninth-placed Bolivia had a 1-0 victory over seventh place Paraguay and now has seven points. Paraguay is on 15. The 13th round of South American World Cup qualifiers will be played in March 2017.
Messi opened the score with a perfect free kick to the left of Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina, on 9 minutes. Only 13 minutes later, Messi managed to dribble through the Colombian defense and cross to striker Lucas Pratto, a contentious choice by coach Bauza ahead of Juventus targetman Gonzalo Higuain. Argentina could have scored many more goals in the second half, with Messi still leading the efforts. The third only came at 83 minutes after the Barcelona star began a play with a backheel kick. Seconds later he stole the ball from a Colombia defender, cut into the penalty area and put in a smooth low cross he found Angel Di Maria, who effortlessly scored. Colombia’s coach Jose Pekerman said his team clearly felt the absence of two key defenders: suspended Oscar Murillo and injured Yerry Mina.
After the defeat against Brazil, Messi openly said he was disappointed with Argentina’s performance, and used an expletive to say the team needed to improve to qualify for Russia 2018. On Tuesday, with an increased box-to-box awareness throughout the match, Messi led by example rather than words. Words were also in short supply after the game. On behalf of the whole team, Messi said no players would speak to the press, in response to a wave of criticism in Argentinian media.