Neymar shrugged off some rough tackling and a missed penalty to score a brilliant solo goal as he led Brazil to a 3-0 win over Paraguay that moved them within sight of the 2018 World Cup finals on Tuesday.
It was Brazil’s eighth consecutive win in qualifying and ensures they will finish the 10-nation group in at least fifth place, which would be enough for a playoff against a team from Oceania for a berth at the Russia finals.
Brazil lead the standings on 33 points with four matches to play, 11 points ahead of arch-rivals Argentina, who slipped back into fifth after a 2-0 defeat away to Bolivia without suspended captain Lionel Messi. The top four teams qualify automatically.
Paraguay are in seventh spot on 18 points.
The early part of the match was marked by a string of fouls on Neymar but the first big chance was a breakaway by Paraguay’s Derlis Gonzalez, who hurried his shot and put the ball wide.
Midfielder Hernan Perez missed another chance for Paraguay before Philippe Coutinho opened the scoring for the hosts in the 34th minute at the Corinthians Arena.
The Liverpool playmaker played a neat one-two with Paulinho before curling a low, left-foot shot past goalkeeper Anthony Silva and inside the far corner.
Neymar was awarded a penalty after being brought down early in the second half but his stop-start run-up failed to deceive Silva and the keeper saved with a dive to his right then blocked his effort with the rebound.
Stung by the miss, Neymar made up for it 10 minutes later, scampering down the left wing from inside his own half, skipping tackles and driving into the box before beating a wrong-footed Silva with a shot that took a deflection off a defender.
Neymar, who thought he had a second goal when he picked up a rebound off a team mate in an offside position and put the ball in the net, came in for some more heavy treatment from Paraguay, who hardly troubled Brazil goalkeeper Alisson in the second half.
Left back Marcelo put the icing on the cake with another fine goal in the closing minutes for Brazil, who extended their South American qualifying record with the victory.
BOLIVIA – ARGENTINA 2-0
Argentina, weakened by the last-minute suspension of Lionel Messi, had their chances of reaching next year’s World Cup finals dealt a blow on Tuesday when they were beaten 2-0 by a spirited Bolivia side in La Paz.
Juan Arce and Marcelo Martins scored either side of halftime to give Bolivia a deserved victory over an Argentina side who defended poorly throughout an exciting end-to-end encounter.
The defeat in the high altitude of the Andean city, coupled with Colombia’s 2-0 win away in Ecuador and Chile’s 3-1 defeat of Venezuela, means the twice World Cup winners fall from third to fifth in the 10-team South American qualifying group.
Argentina were already without suspended regulars Javier Mascherano, Lucas Biglia and Gonzalo Higuain and their task was made even tougher when captain Messi was handed a four-match ban for swearing at a match official hours before the game started.
Bolivia appeared fired up by the decision and got the goal their early pressing deserved through Arce after 31 minutes.
The skinny winger outmuscled Facundo Roncaglia on the penalty spot to head home a deep cross from Pablo Escobar on the right.
Roncaglia was at fault again for the second goal seven minutes into the second half.
The Celta Vigo defender failed to prevent Jorge Flores from escaping to the byline to cross for an unmarked Marcelo Martins.
The big striker had all the time in the world to steady himself and hammer the ball past helpless Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
Argentina came into the game more when Sergio Aguero replaced Angel Correa 10 minutes into the second half but they could not get a goal.
“We tried to wrestle control of the game from Bolivia (and) the team improved a bit in the second half,” said Argentine coach Edgardo Bauza.
“Bolivia won fair and square,” he added. “We need to think ahead. We are still alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup.” “We know that this is going to be a battle and we are going to keep fighting.”