The return of Lionel Messi to an under-pressure Argentina team has finally paid off.
After a lacklustre performance last week against Brazil, the five-time FIFA player of the year winner masterminded a 3-0 victory over Colombia in the South American World Cup qualifiers last night. Messi, who reversed his decision to retired from international football, scored the first with a breathtaking free kick and contributed two assists.
Argentina are now in fifth place with 19 points from 12 games, with six games to go. Colombia drop to sixth with 18 points.
There are ten teams in the group. The first four qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia and the fifth will go into a play-off.
The home victory eased some of the pressure on coach Edgardo Bauza, who received the dreaded vote of confidence 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 are now fourth, with 20 points, and Uruguay remain second with 23.
Leaders Brazil beat eighth-placed 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 champions.
ARGENTINA 3-0 COLOMBIA
Messi opened the scoring with a perfect free kick to the left of Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina, on nine minutes.
Thirteen minutes later, Messi dribbled through the Colombian defence and crossed for striker Lucas Pratto to score. Pratto was a contentious choice by coach Bauza ahead of Juventus targetman Gonzalo Higuain.
The third came on 83 minutes after Messi sparked the move with a backheel. Seconds later he stole the ball from a Colombia defender, cut into the penalty area and put in a smooth low cross for Angel Di Maria to score.
After the game Messi said no players would speak to the press, in response to a wave of criticism in Argentinian media.
CHILE 3-1 URUGUAY
Uruguay opened the scoring through Edinson Cavani after 16 minutes.
But Chile, the Copa America champions, responded to pull off one of their best wins in the qualifying tournament so far. That was largely thanks to a superb performance by Arsenal striker Alexis Sanchez, who returned from injury, scored a brace and is now just one goal short of Marcelo Salas as the top goalscorer ever for La Roja.
The beginning of the turnaround began with striker Eduardo Vargas nodding a cross from the left to level the score in the dying moments of the first half. Then, on 60 minutes, Uruguayan goalkeeper Fernando Muslera failed to save a powerful shot by Sanchez from the edge of the box. Sanchez scored again 15 minutes from time with a neat finish.
PERU 0-2 BRAZIL
Brazil did not need to be at their best in securing a 2-0 victory over Peru in Lima; the sixth in a row for the leaders of the South American qualifiers under new coach Tite.
After a lacklustre first half, Brazil went ahead in the 57th minute when Peru’s defence gave the ball away inside the penalty box to 19-year-old Gabriel Jesus, who had an easy finish.
In the 77th minute, the Peruvian defence again was at fault, allowing Jesus to set up midfielder Renato Augusto for another simple finish.
Brazil end the year with 27 points, which was enough to qualify in previous editions of the South American qualifiers. Only months ago they were lagging sixth under previous coach Dunga.