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 while Chile and Argentina stumbled once more.
Liverpool star Coutinho, who had seen his hopes of a dream move to Barcelona dashed earlier on 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.
Down to the wire?
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.