In their first matches in almost a year, Argentina and Uruguay on Thursday won their opening 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers without doing much to impress their fans watching from home.
Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez each scored from the penalty spot, but did little else to energize the empty stadiums of a region still hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Messi netted the only goal of Argentina’s victory over Ecuador at the La Bombonera, while Suarez opened the scoring in Uruguay’s 2-1 last-minute win over Chile in Montevideo.
In the other match, Paraguay were held to a 2-2 draw by Peru.
Messi did have more liberty with his national team than he has had at Barcelona, but despite the goal from the penalty spot in the 13th minute, he did not shine as expected and saw his two attacking teammates, Lautaro Martinez and Lucas Ocampo, waste opportunities.
Messi’s favorite partner with Argentina, striker Sergio Aguero, is injured.
“It was a tough year for all the world, for us Argentines. To be able to play and give some joy to people with this victory, beyond the match itself, is good, to take some of the stress off,” Messi said. “What matters is that we won and now we have to keep growing, as we have done since the Copa America last year.”
Messi, who is yet to win a trophy with his national team, had only two shots on goal.
Ecuador threatened Argentina’s lead at times during the second half, despite having little time to prepare under new coach Gustavo Alfaro.
Without Edinson Cavani, who missed selection because of his lack of action, Suarez was expected to be Uruguay’s key player against Chile and he seemed set for that after opening the scoring in the 39th minute with a penalty awarded by the video assistant referee.
However, Chile did not allow the new Atletico Madrid target man to dictate play and made it 1-1 in the 54th minute when veteran striker Alexis Sanchez beat Uruguay goalkeeper Martin Campana.
As coach Oscar Tabarez had predicted, Uruguay missed their supporters at the Estadio Centenario, but just as the few coaches and players in attendance thought the match would end in a draw, Maxi Gomez struck from the edge of the penalty-area in stoppage-time.
“There’s still a lot of uncertainty in these qualifiers, we just don’t know how it will be,” Tabarez said, in a reference to the pandemic. “To play without fans affects us a lot. As long as there is no attendance this will not be soccer.”
In his goal celebration, Suarez showed a shirt that wished goalkeeper Fernando Muslera well.
Muslera is recovering from a fractured leg and his mother died last month.
Peru’s Andre Carillo was the key figure of the match in Paraguay.
He opened the scoring in the 52nd minute with a powerful right-foot volley, kept the pressure on the hosts and made Peru believe they could leave Asuncion with a victory.
However, substitute Angel Romero netted a brace from close range, in the 66th and 81st minutes, to put Paraguay ahead, before Carillo’s powerful header in the 85th minute handed the visitors a point.
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