Lionel Messi’s return sparked Argentina to a 2-1 win over Chile in Santiago on Thursday, breathing new life into their South American qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
Messi, who had missed the first four games last year with a knee injury, laid on the 24th-minute winner for defender Gabriel Mercado after Angel Di Maria had cancelled out Felipe Gutierrez’s opener for Chile.
Argentina, beaten finalists at the last World Cup in Brazil, moved up to fourth in the 10-team group on eight points from five games. The top four qualify automatically for Russia with the fifth-ranked team going into an intercontinental playoff.
“We had to win in whatever way we could,” Messi told broadcasters TyC Sports. “I was glad to be back to help this group of players who fight for every point to the death.”
Chile, who had beaten Argentina in the Copa America final in Santiago last July, took the lead after 10 minutes when Gutierrez took advantage of poor defending at a corner to head past goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
The home side dominated the opening quarter of an hour as Argentina struggled to find their feet but the tide turned when Di Maria curled a right-footed shot past Claudio Bravo for the equaliser 10 minutes later.
Argentina then pulled ahead when Messi won a tussle for the ball inside the box and lifted it over to right back Gabriel Mercado, who hooked the ball home past Bravo.
Chile drove forward in the second half searching for the equaliser, keeping Messi in check and Argentina on the back foot.
Fabian Orellana forced a diving save from Romero, substitute Mauricio Pinilla hit the side netting and Alexis Sanchez hit a 90th-minute free kick over the bar but the home side were unable to break through.
The defeat leaves Chile in sixth place on seven points, six behind leaders Ecuador, who needed a stoppage-time goal by Angel Mena to rescue a 2-2 draw at home to Paraguay.
The draw ended a run of four straight wins for Ecuador but they remain the only unbeaten team in the group.
Joining Chile on seven points are Colombia, who got an injury-time winner from Edwin Cardona to beat Bolivia 3-2.
Peru moved above Bolivia into eighth after Raul Ruidiaz struck a 94th minute equaliser as the hosts fought back from 2-0 down to snatch a 2-2 draw against winless Venezuela in Lima.
Second-placed Uruguay play Brazil, who are fifth, in Recife on Friday.