Lionel Messi and Claudio Bravo were teammates in a victorious Barcelona dressing room. But their careers are even more marked by moments that put them in opposition. Bravo was the Chile goalkeeper who emerged triumphant from penalty shootouts in the finals of the Copa America in 2015 and 16, both times denying Messi a senior title with Argentina. And on Thursday night, when South America’s World Cup qualification resumed, they were involved in another private duel.
First blood went to Messi, rolling home a penalty. But after Alexis Sanchez had pulled Chile level, the rest of the night belonged to Bravo.
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From the edge of the box Messi chipped a superb free kick over the wall. Bravo scrambled across his goal to claw the ball away. Then Messi had another free kick, getting it even closer to the top corner and clipped the bar. And then, in the closing stages Messi went hunting for victory. He cut in once from the left and shot to the near post. Bravo dived to block the shot. Messi cut in once more and aimed for the far corner. Bravo plunged right to tip round the post.
The 1-1 draw was a frustration for Argentina. They stay second in the table — they will be overtaken in the unlikely event of an Ecuador win away to Brazil on Friday — but have only scored three goals in two home matches, and two of them have come from the penalty spot.
They were rarely troubled by an unambitious Chile team playing their first competitive match under coach Martin Lasarte. Debutant keeper Emiliano Martinez had little to do apart from pick the ball out of the net when Chile equalised. Charles Aranguiz hit a free kick beyond the far post, Gary Medel turned across the face and Alexis Sanchez did the rest.
But in the northern town of Santiago del Estero, Argentina were worryingly sterile. Some of this may surely be attributed to the long layoff, with the players meeting up for the first time since November and having little time to train. There was also a slight change of formation. Coach Lionel Scaloni has been working with a midfield trio, but this time he fielded two wingers — Lucas Ocampos and the recalled Angel Di Maria – with Messi and centre forward Lautaro Martinez, leaving just two in the centre. It left them disjointed, although Di Maria flitted about interestingly for an hour. He was the man behind the penalty, spilling the defence with a fine ball for Martinez, who was brought down by Guillermo Maripan.
Messi’s penalty seemed to be putting Argentina on the road to a comfortable home win. Instead they were held at home, like Uruguay, who played out a disappointing goalless draw with Paraguay.
With Edinson Cavani suspended, Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had the chance to move away from his usual 4-4-2 formation — and surprised by going with three centre-backs. It was a strange option against very defensive opponents, content to wait and hope to launch occasional bursts from Miguel Almiron. Paraguay played a back four entirely comprised of centre-backs and Uruguay found it hard to play through or around them.
Uruguay were very unlucky to have a first-half goal disallowed for a dubious offside, and can take heart from an encouraging debut from the latest of their youth products, playmaker Facundo Torres, who was bright and inventive, if a little over eager, when he came on for the last half hour. He found space well and combined with Luis Suarez, but the breakthrough never came. The draw leaves both sides behind the front three on seven points, where they are joined by Colombia, who celebrated coach Reinaldo Rueda’s first match in charge with a morale boosting 3-0 win away to Peru.
It was a scrappy game until shortly before half-time, when Peru failed to deal with a free kick and gangling defender Yerry Mina took advantage to head home. Then came a flurry of activity. Peru had left-back Miguel Trauco somewhat harshly sent off. Straight after the interval Colombia made them pay, Stefan Medina crossing from the space vacated by Trauco for Matheus Uribe to head the second. With Peru still reeling, Luis Diaz added a third, before, in his first action since coming on, substitute Colombian right-back Daniel Munoz was sent off in a decision that also looked extremely harsh — a classic case, perhaps, of a referee attempting to compensate. The problem from Peru’s point of view was that the game was already lost, and hopes of a second consecutive World Cup are looking increasingly bleak.
Peru have been unable to renew their squad. This is in no way the fault of coach Ricardo Gareca, who did wonderfully well to take this group of players to Russia 2018. For the eighth consecutive year no Peruvian club has made it through to the knockout phase of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League. There is a dearth of new talent. The old guard will have to stage an extraordinary rally if Peru are to make it to Qatar. They have just one point from five games and, after Bolivia got the round underway with a 3-1 win over Venezuela, Peru are now sadly rooted to the bottom of the table.