Argentina’s Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring a goal against Ecuador during their 2022 FIFA World Cup South American qualifier in Buenos Aires on Thursday. Agence France-Presse
Argentina got their World Cup qualifying campaign off to the perfect start on Thursday when Lionel Messi’s early penalty gave them a 1-0 win over Ecuador in a lacklustre match in Buenos Aires.
The Argentine FA piped fan noise around the empty Bombonera stadium and the chants of “Messi! Messi!” were vindicated as early as the 12th minute when he put Argentina ahead from the spot after Lucas Ocampos was fouled inside the penalty area.
Argentina had lost just one of their last eight World Cup qualifiers against Ecuador and although they could not add to the scoreline they never looked in danger of losing in a scrappy game against limited opponents.
“It was a tough year for all the world, for us Argentinians. To be able to play and give some joy to people with this victory, beyond the match itself, is good to take some of the stress off,” Messi said.
“What matters is that we won and now we have to keep growing, as we have done since the Copa America last year.” With the South American qualifiers twice pushed back from the scheduled start in March, it was almost a year since either team had played a full international and Messi said that inaction contributed to the poor spectacle.
“We hoped the level of play would be different but it’s been almost a year since we played together, this was our first game back and the nervousness makes it complicated,” the Barcelona striker said.
The three points, however, were more than welcome for a side that hasn’t won a major title since lifting the Copa America in 1993.
The win, which extended Argentina’s unbeaten run to eight games under coach Lionel Scaloni, was also positive given that seven of the starting line up had never played a World Cup qualifier previously.
Argentina’s next game is on Tuesday against Bolivia in La Paz, while Ecuador return home to face Uruguay, who beat Chile 2-1 in their opener earlier on Thursday, the same day.
As coach Oscar Tabarez predicted, Uruguay missed its hardcore supporters in the Estadio Centenario. But just as the few staffers and players in attendance thought the match would end in a draw, Maxi Gómez struck from the edge of the box at stoppage time.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty in these qualifiers, we just don’t know how it will be,” Tabarez said, in a reference to the pandemic. “To play without fans affects us a lot. As long as there is no attendance this will not be soccer.” Peru striker Andre Carillo was the key figure of the match at Paraguay’s Defensores del Chaco stadium. He opened the scoring in the 52nd minute with a powerful right-foot volley, kept the pressure on the hosts and made Peruvians believe they could leave Asuncion with a victory.
But then substitute Angel Romero netted a brace from close range, in the 66th and in the 81st minutes, to put Paraguay ahead.
Carillo’s powerful header in the 85th equalized for Peru, giving the visitors a point in Paraguay before hosting Brazil in Lima on Tuesday.
Also on Tuesday, Paraguay will play at Venezuela, the only South American team that has never qualified for a World Cup.
The top four teams in South America’s 10-team group qualify automatically for Qatar 2022 and the fifth-placed side goes into an inter-regional playoff.