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Lionel Messi scoreless as substitute in Argentina’s 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Paraguay

SAO PAULO — Lionel Messi hit the post twice after he came off the bench but struggled to deliver a strong performance following his return from injury, but Argentina managed to beat Paraguay 1-0 on Thursday in a South American World Cup qualifying match.

The World Cup winners picked up their third victory in three matches of the round-robin competition.

The only goal of the match came in the third minute after a corner kick that found Nicolás Otamendi free from marking in the penalty box. The defender smashed the ball into the net with a left-foot volley.

The 36-year-old Messi has felt muscular pains in his right leg that have sidelined him for several matches at his club Inter Miami. Coach Lionel Scaloni picked Nico Gonzalez as his replacement. The star substituted Julián Álvarez in the 52nd minute, when Argentina was already in the lead.

Messi hit the post in a corner kick he took 10 minutes after stepping on the pitch of the Monumental de Nuñez Stadium in Buenos Aires, but his other efforts to dribble and give deep passes fell flat.

A free kick from the same spot where he scored the winner against Ecuador in September raised hopes of Argentina fans shortly before the final whistle, but Messi’s shot hit the right post.

The absence of Argentina’s captain in the first half led Scaloni to chose an up-front duo with Álvarez and Lautaro Martínez for the match.

Paraguay’s new coach Daniel Garnero had his debut against Argentina, and his team gave little evidence of attacking power. The 54-year-old coach took over from Guillermo Barros Schelotto last month after the first two qualifiers.

Messi missed four MLS matches for his club plus the U.S. Open Cup final. He played 10 minutes on Saturday in Inter Miami’s 1-0 loss to Cincinnati. He also skipped Argentina’s 3-0 win at Bolivia in another World Cup qualifying match in September.

Argentina has nine points and Paraguay has one in South American World Cup qualifying.

The next World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada is expanding to a 48-team format, meaning direct entry to the top six teams in South America. The seventh-place team will contest an intercontinental playoff for a berth.

Earlier on Thursday, Colombia and Uruguay drew 2-2. Veteran James Rodríguez opened the scoring for the hosts in the 37th minute, and Matias Oliveira levelled shortly before the break.

Mateus Uribe put the Colombians back in front in the 52nd minute. Uruguay equalized from the spot with Darwin Núñez moments before the final whistle after being fouled by goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, who was sent off.

Colombia has five points in three games and Uruguay has four.

Ecuador beat Bolivia in La Paz 2-1 with a goal in the final moments of the match.

Kendry Paéz scored for the visitors shortly before the break, and Rodrigo Ramallo equalized in the 83rd minute. Kevin Rodriguez gave Ecuador its first three points in qualifying.

Later on Thursday, Brazil will have a chance to join Argentina on the top of the standings with a win against Venezuela. Chile and Peru will also play.

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