Philippe Coutinho shrugged off his transfer disappointment with a goal as Brazil beat Ecuador to guarantee top spot in South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying race on Thursday while Chile and Argentina stumbled once more.
Liverpool star Coutinho, who had seen his hopes of a dream move to Barcelona dashed earlier Thursday as the transfer window slammed shut with no agreement, produced a scintillating second-half display in a 2-0 victory over Ecuador in Porto Alegre.
The 25-year-old has not played for Liverpool this season, officially sidelined by a back problem as the intrigue over a move to the Camp Nou swirled.
However Coutinho showed no sign of injury after coming on for Renato Augusto in the second half, enlivening the hosts after a goalless first 45 minutes before a restless home crowd in Porto Alegre.
New Barcelona signing Paulinho opened the scoring for Brazil, lashing home from close range in the 69th minute after Willian’s corner.
Coutinho then fashioned Brazil’s second, playing Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus into space behind the Ecuador back four with a lofted pass.
Jesus wrongfooted the covering Ecuador defence with a sublime flick and then headed into the path of Coutinho who finished emphatically.
The win was Brazil’s ninth consecutive qualifying victory and gives the five-time World Cup winners an 11-point cushion with three games remaining, meaning they cannot now be overhauled at the top of the table.
The top four teams in South America’s round-robin competition qualify automatically for next year’s finals in Russia, with the fifth-placed team facing a play-off.
The scramble for automatic qualifying spots promises to go down to the wire, with only two points separating second-placed Colombia (25 points) and fifth-placed Argentina (23 points).
Paraguay also thrust themselves into contention with arguably the performance of the day on Thursday, a 3-0 away win over Chile in Santiago.
The defeat capped a miserable 24 hours for Chile’s unsettled Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez.
Like Coutinho, Sanchez had also seen his hopes of a transfer evaporate on Thursday, with a mooted move to Manchester City stalling.
Sanchez barely featured in a disappointing display by the Chileans, who fell behind after midfield talisman Arturo Vidal scored a spectacular headed own goal in the first half to put Paraguay ahead.
Further goals from Victor Caceres and Richard Ortiz sealed a deserved win for Paraguay, who moved up to sixth spot with 21 points — just two points behind Argentina, who remain in fifth place.
Argentina meanwhile endured another frustrating outing after being held to a 0-0 draw by Uruguay in Montevideo.
Argentina dominated the early exchanges but their challenge fizzled out in a dreary second half display littered with fouls on both sides.
For Uruguay, the quicker-than-expected return of Luis Suarez – just two weeks after a knee injury – could not invigorate their attack.
Suarez authored one of Uruguay’s best chances late in the first half after Edinson Cavani pounced on an Argentina slip near halfway and passed to the Barcelona star.
Suarez looked up and attempted an audacious lob from 40 yards as Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero backpedalled, only for the ball to fly just over.
The draw means Uruguay remain in third place in the standings on 24 points, one behind second-placed Colombia, who were held to a 0-0 draw against already-eliminated Venezuela in San Cristobal.
Luis Suarez could face Barcelona teammate Lionel Messi in a crucial World Cup qualifier between Uruguay and Argentina on Thursday (2300GMT) after Barca’s medical team cleared the striker to return from a knee injury.
“The Barca striker has successfully completed the process of recovering his right knee injury under the supervision and coordination of the medical services of the club and the Uruguayan football Association,” Barcelona said in a statement.
Suarez was originally expected to be sidelined for a month when he injured his right knee cap as Barca were soundly beaten 2-0 by Real Madrid in the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup just two weeks ago.
Uruguay host Argentina in Montevideo with both sides still fighting to secure their place in Russia next year.
Only the top four in the 10-team South American round robin qualify directly with fifth place earning a two-legged playoff against the winners of the Oceania region.
Uruguay sit third, just one point ahead of Argentina in fifth, and also travel to Paraguay on Tuesday.
Five-time world champions Brazil are the only South American side to have so far guaranteed their place in next year’s showpiece.
Brazil have already qualified for the 2018 World Cup but all eyes will be on superstar Neymar playing Ecuador on Thursday in his first international since a record transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.
The Selecao are on the fast track to Russia, with a good chance of ending the qualifiers as South America’s top team. Ecuador are only sixth and in danger of missing out on the finals in Russia.
For Brazil coach Tite, who has overseen eight out of eight victories in competitive matches since taking over, the priority for the clash in Porto Alegre is to maintain the high standards.
“The World Cup is now properly underway,” he told journalists at the training facility.
Tite has available his full stable of stars, led by Neymar who became the world’s most expensive player with a 222 million euro ($261 million) transfer to PSG from Barcelona.
With 52 goals in 77 international games, he is currently Brazil’s fourth most prolific scorer in history, with the legend Pele at the top with 77 goals.
With Neymar will be three PSG teammates: Marquinhos, Thiago Silva and Daniel Alves.
Also playing is 20-year-old Gabriel Jesus, of Manchester City, who said Tuesday he was “very happy to look back over the last year, because I have achieved my childhood dream of wearing the national shirt and helping my companions.”