Lionel Messi plays one half in Argentina’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying win; Brazil and Venezuela draw

SAO PAULO (AP) — Lionel Messi hit a post twice after he came off the bench but struggled to deliver a strong performance following his return from injury. Still, Argentina beat Paraguay 1-0 on Thursday in a South American World Cup qualifying match.

But Argentina’s biggest South American rival left the pitch to some jeers at Cuiabá, Brazil after the home side and Venezuela drew 1-1. The result put pressure on new Brazil coach Fernando Diniz and kept Argentina as the sole leaders of the round-robin competition with their third victory in three matches.

The next World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada is expanding to a 48-team format, meaning direct entry to the top six teams in South America. The seventh-place team will contest an intercontinental playoff for a berth.

Argentina leads South American World Cup qualifying with 9 points, followed by Brazil (7), Colombia (5), Uruguay (4), Chile (4), Venezuela (4), Ecuador (3), Paraguay (1), Peru (1), and Bolivia (0). All 10 teams will play the fourth round on Tuesday.

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The next round will offer the following matchups: Peru vs. Argentina, Uruguay vs. Brazil, Ecuador vs. Colombia, Paraguay vs. Bolivia and Venezuela vs. Chile.

ARGENTINA 1, PARAGUAY 0

The only goal of the match at the Monumental de Nunez Stadium came in the third minute after a corner kick that found Nicolás Otamendi free from marking in the penalty box. The defender smashed the ball into the net with a left-foot volley.

The 36-year-old Messi has felt muscular pains in his right leg that have sidelined him for several matches at his club Inter Miami. Coach Lionel Scaloni picked Nico Gonzalez as his replacement. The star substituted Julián Álvarez in the 52nd minute, when Argentina was already in the lead.

Messi hit the post in a corner kick he took 10 minutes after stepping on the pitch of the Monumental de Nuñez Stadium in Buenos Aires, but his other efforts to dribble and give deep passes fell flat.

A free kick from the same spot where he scored the winner against Ecuador in September raised hopes for Argentina fans shortly before the final whistle, but Messi’s shot hit the right post.

“I get very calm when we have Leo on the pitch,” midfielder Rodrigo De Paul said after the match. “We are at a very good level. We feel comfortable with the way we are playing.”

Paraguay’s new coach Daniel Garnero had his debut against Argentina, and his team gave little evidence of attacking power. The 54-year-old coach took over from Guillermo Barros Schelotto last month after the first two qualifiers.

Messi missed four MLS matches for his club plus the U.S. Open Cup final. He played 10 minutes on Saturday in Inter Miami’s 1-0 loss to Cincinnati. He also skipped Argentina’s 3-0 win at Bolivia in another World Cup qualifying match in September.

BRAZIL 1, VENEZUELA 1

For the first time, Brazil failed to beat Venezuela at home. Neymar, Vinicius Júnior and Richarlison struggled the entire first half to get a clear shot on goal.

Seconds after Neymar got his first big opportunity after the break, with a shot from the edge of the box, Brazil scored its goal with an assist from the Al-Hilal player.

Neymar took a corner kick that ended in a close range header by Gabriel Magalhães in the 52nd minute at the Arena Pantanal in the city of Cuiabá, one of Brazil’s warmest at this time of the year.

The hosts squandered several opportunities from close range. Venezuela kept some pressure and scored in the 85th minute with a half-bicycle by Eduardo Bello, in one of the most impressive goals of South American World Cup qualifying so far.

Venezuela’s defense managed to keep Brazil at bay until the final whistle.

“Now we have to hold our heads up high and think about Uruguay. We wanted to go at them, they wanted to defend and we couldn’t break them like we wanted,” Brazil captain Casemiro said after the match.

Earlier on Thursday, Colombia and Uruguay drew 2-2. Veteran James Rodríguez opened the scoring for the hosts in the 37th minute, and Matias Oliveira levelled shortly before the break.

Mateus Uribe put the Colombians back in front in the 52nd minute. Uruguay equalized from the spot with Darwin Núñez moments before the final whistle after being fouled by goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, who was sent off.

Ecuador beat Bolivia in La Paz 2-1 with a goal in the final moments of the match.

Kendry Paéz scored for the visitors shortly before the break, and Rodrigo Ramallo equalized in the 83rd minute. Kevin Rodriguez gave Ecuador its first three points in qualifying.

Chile beat Peru 2-0. Diego Valdéz scored the first in the 74th minute and an own goal by Marcos López finished the scoring in injury time.

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