Lionel Messi marked his retirement about face with a goal to give 10-man Argentina a 1-0 win over Uruguay on Thursday that lifted them to the top of the South American qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia.
In a match of few chances, Messi created something out of nothing three minutes before halftime when, surrounded by defenders, his shot from outside the box took a deflection on Jose Maria Gimenez and wrongfooted goalkeeper Fernando Muslera.
It took Messi’s record as Argentina’s top scorer to 56 in his 114th international and proved the perfect insurance for his team who were reduced to 10 men when young forward Paulo Dybala was sent off on the stroke of halftime.
Dybala, who had almost put his side ahead in the 31st minute with a shot that hit the post, was sent off for a second booking and left the pitch in tears after his first start for Argentina.
Uruguay, who had spent virtually the entire first half defending, took the game to Argentina in the second but hardly troubled goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
“I wanted to be here after all the confusion I’d caused by first saying I wasn’t coming and then that I was,” Messi told reporters.
Messi said in June he was quitting international soccer after the disappointment of losing the Copa America final on penalties to Chile.
“From the moment I said that, the fans showed me a lot of affection and I’m really grateful, I couldn’t not come back.”
Argentina now lead the 10-nation group with 14 points from seven matches, one point more than Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador in the four qualification places.
Brazil, who beat Ecuador 3-0 in Quito with two goals by teenager Gabriel Jesus, are fifth – which would put them in an inter-continental playoff for one more berth.
All four coaches who were taking charge of their first matches won, including Argentina’s Edgardo Bauza, who now takes his side to play bottom team Venezuela away on Tuesday.
Brazil’s Tite will be looking to confirm their improvement at home against Colombia, who beat Venezuela 2-0.
Paraguay, under new coach Francisco Arce, upset Copa America holders Chile 2-1 in Asuncion to climb to sixth also with 12 points and play Uruguay next in Montevideo.
Bolivia gave their new coach Guillermo Hoyos a winning start with a 2-0 home win over Peru and face seventh-placed Chile away next.
Ecuador, who had made a fine start to the qualifiers with a 2-0 away victory over Argentina last year as the first of four successive wins, face Peru in Lima.