Argentina closed in on a direct World Cup spot on Friday with a 1-0 win in Uruguay despite the absence of Lionel Messi for most of the match as he recovers from a knee injury.
Veteran winger Angel Di Maria scored the only goal in the seventh minute with a powerful shot from the right corner of the penalty box, with Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera not even getting close to stopping the ball.
Second-place Argentina now have 28 points from 12 matches, with the top four teams in South America earning direct entry to the World Cup. The fifth-place team goes into an intercontinental playoff for a spot in Qatar next year.
“Winning today was a gigantic step. We deserve this, we have worked for this,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said. “They needed points, playing here was hard. This Argentina has amazing courage, and when we don’t play well we have to win anyway.”
Argentina were less dominant in Montevideo in comparison with recent qualifying matches. Messi only came on in the middle of the second half, but did not make an impact. The absence of defensive midfielder Leandro Paredes, who has a hip injury, also affected the Copa America champions.
Uruguay’s Luis Suarez hit the post after Argentina’s goal and his team had the better opportunities in the second half, but they largely missed the target.
A number of Uruguay players missed the match due to injuries, including defenders Sebastian Caceres, Sebastian Coates and Matas Via, midfielders Federico Valverde, Nicols de la Cruz and Giorgian de Arrascaeta and forwards Edinson Cavani, Darwin Nez and Maximiliano Gomez.
This week’s round of games saw Brazil, with 34 points, become the first South American team to qualify for Qatar. Ecuador remain third with 20 points, while Chile, Colombia and Uruguay follow with 16 points, two ahead of Peru. Paraguay and Bolivia have 12 points and Venezuela has seven.
Argentina’s next match is against Brazil when they meet in San Juan on Tuesday. Their match in September was suspended after seven minutes of play because of concerns from authorities over breaches of COVID-19 protocols. FIFA has not yet decided whether it will be replayed.