Argentina’s hopes of sealing qualification for next year’s World Cup were thwarted in a 1-1 draw with Ecuador on Tuesday as Colombia took a massive stride toward the finals in Brazil with victory over Peru.
The Argentines, who once again left Lionel Messi on the bench, had to settle for a point after Segundo Castillo canceled out Sergio Aguero’s early spot-kick for the visitors at the Olympic Stadium in Quito.
Ugly scenes marred the closing stages, with Argentina captain Javier Mascherano sent off for kicking a medic who was stretchering him off the pitch in an incident that triggered a prolonged touchline melee.
Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella praised the performance of his side in digging out a point against an Ecuador team who had boasted a 100 percent record in previous home qualifiers, all staged 2,800m above sea level.
“We knew it was going to be our hardest game,” Sabella said. “We had a lot of things against us — injuries, suspensions — but the team responded with great dedication. I am very satisfied.”
Argentina could have wrapped up qualification with a victory, but nevertheless should reach Brazil comfortably with three games remaining.
Argentina were given a dream start after only four minutes when Manchester City striker Aguero fired the visitors ahead.
Ecuador goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez was the villain for the hosts, spilling Angel di Maria’s long-range effort, before clumsily bundling over Rodrigo Palacio as the Inter forward pounced on the rebound.
Aguero made no mistake with the subsequent spot-kick, sending Dominguez the wrong way to put Argentina 1-0 up.
However, Ecuador were back on level terms after 17 minutes. Ecuador captain Walter Ayovi whipped in a free-kick from the left and Castillo slipped his marker to thump home an unstoppable header from close range.
The Ecuador equalizer appeared to sap morale from the Argentine ranks, and they found themselves firmly on the back foot for much of the remainder of the contest.
The introduction of Messi from the bench on 61 minutes raised Argentine hopes, but the Barcelona maestro was unable to break the deadlock.
The result left Argentina on top of the nine-team South American zone qualifiers with 26 points from 13 games, with three matches left to play.
Ecuador are third in the standings with 21 points after 12 games. Second-placed Colombia edged toward their first World Cup finals appearance since the 1998 tournament in France with a clinical 2-0 win over Peru in their port stronghold of Barranquilla.
Colombia took the lead after 13 minutes, when Monaco striker Radamel Falcao coolly converted from the penalty spot after Napoli winger Juan Zuniga had been bundled over by Victor Yotun for a clear foul.
Teofilo Gutierrez made it 2-0 on the stroke of half-time to put Colombia on the threshold of World Cup qualification.
In other games on Tuesday, a goal from Napoli’s highly rated striker Edinson Cavani breathed life into Uruguay’s faltering qualification campaign to clinch a 1-0 win over Venezuela in Puerto Ordaz.
Cavani, reportedly a transfer target for Chelsea, Manchester City and Real Madrid, struck in the 28th minute for a win that lifted the 2010 World Cup semi-finalists into the qualification places.
Elsewhere, Chile closed in on one of the four automatic qualifying berths with a 3-1 win over Bolivia in Santiago, which came courtesy of goals from Eduardo Vargas, Alexis Sanchez and Arturo Vidal. Marcelo Martins got Bolivia’s goal.
Victory saw Chile go level on 21 points with third-placed Ecuador, who they trail by goal difference. Chile are five points clear of fifth-placed Uruguay.
The top four teams automatically qualify for Brazil, with the fifth placed team facing a play-off against their Asian counterpart.
South Korea edged a tense encounter against Uzbekistan and Australia finally hit form with a 4-0 win over Jordan as the regional giants took big strides toward next year’s World Cup on Tuesday.
South Korea’s 1-0 victory, courtesy of a first-half own-goal, puts them one point clear in Group A ahead of Iran, who outclassed bottom side Lebanon 4-0 in Tehran.
It all sets things up for a thrilling denouement next week, with the South Korea hosting Iran in their final game in what should be a highly charged atmosphere in Ulsan.
Third-placed Uzbekistan, still capable of making history as the first Central Asian country to reach the World Cup, are at home to 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, who are out of contention.
Only the top two teams in Asia’s two final qualifying groups win an automatic spot, with the third-placed countries entering a play-off. Group B winners Japan are the only team to book their ticket to Brazil so far.
Meanwhile, Australia eased their jitters after a lackluster campaign with a win that leaves them in Group B’s second automatic qualifying spot ahead of their final game at home to Iraq next week.
At Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium, young winger Robbie Kruse set up veterans Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill, and then grabbed a goal of his own, before skipper Lucas Neill rounded off the scoring with his first international goal.
Australia coach Holger Osieck said he felt “pretty sure” Australia now had the momentum to beat Iraq and get to Brazil. Jordan and Australia had been locked on seven points each before Tuesday’s game.
After a cagey opening in Seoul, Anzur Ismailov’s long shot forced a save from South Korea’s Jung Sung-ryong, and Lee Keun-ho was guilty of a terrible miss when he sliced an easy shot wide from close range.
Uzbekistan’s Ulugbek Bakaev drew South Korea goalkeeper Jung into action again with a shot, but he also passed up a golden chance when he met Server Djeparov’s cross unmarked at the far post, but planted his header high and wide.
After 41 minutes, imposing South Korea striker Kim Shin-wook’s knock-down fell to Lee Myoung-ju, but Uzbek custodian Ignatiy Nesterov dived low at his feet to deny the debutant midfielder.
However, the Korean pressure told just a minute later when Kim Young-gwon’s arcing cross from deep on the right fell to the unfortunate Akmal Shorakhmedov, who could only direct it into his own net.
After the break, Timur Kapadze fired over in a strong spell for the visitors, but South Korea gradually regained control and had the best chances of the second half.
“I felt this match would come down to a single goal,” South Korea coach Choi Kang-hee said. “We were able to win because our players never lost their concentration.”
Jordan had described the game against Australia as the biggest in their history, but they were disappointing in Melbourne and never recovered after falling behind on 15 minutes.
As the referee waved advantage after a foul on the right touchline, Kruse galloped to the byline and cut back his cross for Bresciano, who stabbed home an easy shot from close range.
Germany-based Kruse was again the provider for Cahill’s header for 2-0 just after the hour mark, and he scored the goal of the game when he turned and nutmegged a defender and swept home on 76 minutes.
Eight minutes later, former Premier League defender Neill got in on the act when he nodded his first goal in 91 appearances for the Socceroos.
In Tuesday’s other Group B game in Doha, already qualified Japan ended Iraq’s hopes with a 1-0 win after Shinji Okazaki scored in the 89th minute.