Lionel Messi gives Argentina victory in World Cup qualification opener

The points were all that mattered on Thursday evening at La Bombonera and so Argentina’s narrow victory over Ecuador should be deemed a successful start to South American World Cup qualification but Lionel Scaloni will know that improvements are needed.

Argentina hadn’t played since the 2-2 friendly draw with Uruguay in November 2019 and so Scaloni’s new-look Albiceleste were understandably rusty. Aside from Lionel Messi’s early penalty Argentina struggled to create against a resolute Ecuador who shocked Gerardo Martino’s side at the same stage of qualifying five years earlier.

With that defeat still in the memory, Argentina were perhaps understandably cautious and the injury to Giovani Lo Celso earlier in the week robbed Scaloni the chance to play his preferred midfield three.

The resulting change saw Marcos Acuña come in and the effect saw Argentina move to something closer to a 4-4-2 rather than the 4-3-3, and the absence of passing options through the middle into the final third was clear.

Lucas Ocampos provided some spark down the left and it was the Sevilla forward’s burst into the penalty area that drew the rash challenge from Pervis Estupiñán after ten minutes. Messi converted past Vélez goalkeeper Alexander Domínguez and though dominant in possession for the remainder of the first half, La Albiceleste were unable to create any further scoring opportunities.

Things barely improved after the break and aside from a fine stop from Domínguez to deny Ocampos, neither side really looked like scoring.

Argentina held on for the points and captain Messi summed things up at full-time, “The result was good, but the level of play was something that we expected better. We haven’t played in a year, but we should improve as we get back into rhythm.”

A difficult trip to the altitude of La Paz is up next for Scaloni’s side on Tuesday and if the legs were weary in the closing stages at La Bombonera, Bolivia will really put Argentina to the test.