SAO PAULO: Olympic champions Brazil squad became the first team to qualify for next year’s World Cup finals in Russia after a decisive 3-0 win over Paraguay in Sao Paulo.
An eighth successive won lifted the five-times world champions on to 33 points from 14 matches in the all-encompassing South American qualifying mini-league. Their progress was confirmed after third-place Uruguay lost 2-1 to Peru in Lima.
Brazil’s goals were scored by Philippe Coutinho (34min), Neymar (63) and Marcelo (86).
Meanwhile Argentina, missing the suspended Lionel Messi, lost 2-0 to Bolivia in the altitude of La Paz earlier and slipped from third to fifth with four matches remaining.
The top four in South America earn direct places at the World Cup. The fifth-ranked South American team goes into a playoff against a team from Oceania for a spot in Russia.
Argentina have 22 points from six wins and four draws, putting coach Edgardo Bauza under intense pressure to step aside.
While Argentina struggled, Colombia had a 2-0 win at Ecuador, posting their first win in Quito in 20 years and ended the day in second spot in qualifying with 24 points. Ecuador dropped out of the top five for the first time, slipping to sixth with 20 points.
Also on Tuesday Copa America champion Chile beat last-place Venezuela 3-1 in Santiago and climbed back to fourth spot with 23 points.
Argentina’s best chance of qualifying for the next World Cup seemingly relies on winning an appeal to have Messi’s suspension shortened. The Barcelona star made ffensive remarks to a Brazilian linesman in the 1-0 victory against Chile last Thursday and, if the FIFA ruling prevails, will only return to the team in their last match for qualifiers in October against Ecuador.
From a TV set in the locker room, Messi saw Argentina little by little fade into an average side outrun by the Bolivians at the 3,600 meters of altitude. The last time the Argentines managed to win in La Paz was in 2005.
Of the five defenders coach Edgardo Bauza wanted to field against the ninth-place Bolivians, only left-winger Marcos Rojo was available. Still, the Argentinians seemed to be handling the Bolivians, creating the best opportunities in the first 30 minutes. But then striker Juan Arce headed home a cross from Pablo Escobar in the 32nd minute to open the scoring for the hosts.
The Argentina started losing condition at altitude and Bolivia capitalized via striker Marcelo Moreno, who fired home from close range after a cross from Flores to make it 2-0 in the 52nd.
Bauza said later: “We are alive and we want to qualify for the World Cup. This is a fight that we will keep fighting. The players are worried because no one likes to lose.”
The coach also said “it is strange” that Messi’s ban was decided so quickly. “It is regrettable that he could not play, but even more so that there was no time for me to work with someone else,” Bauza said. “I am a little surprised with the time they gave me to make the change.”
Argentina’s next games will be in August at Uruguay and in Buenos Aires against Venezuela. In October, the World Cup finalists will face Peru at home and Ecuador in Quito.