SANTIAGO • Lionel Messi's return sparked Argentina to a 2-1 win over Chile in Santiago on Thursday, avenging their Copa America final defeat and also breathing new life into their South American qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup.
Messi, who had missed the first four games last year with a knee injury, laid on the 24th-minute winner for defender Gabriel Mercado after Angel di Maria had cancelled out Felipe Gutierrez's opener for Chile.
Argentina moved up to fourth in the 10-team group on eight points from five games. The top four qualify automatically for Russia, with the fifth-ranked team going into an intercontinental play-off.
"We had to win in whatever way we could," the returning Messi told broadcaster TyC Sports.
"I was glad to be back to help this group of players who fight for every point to the death."
Chile, who had beaten Argentina in the Copa America final on penalties in Santiago last July, took the lead after 10 minutes when Gutierrez took advantage of poor defending at a corner to head past goalkeeper Sergio Romero.
The home side dominated the opening quarter of an hour as Argentina struggled to find their feet but the tide turned when di Maria curled a right-footed shot past Claudio Bravo for the equaliser 10 minutes later.
Argentina then pulled ahead when Messi won a tussle for the ball inside the box and lifted it over to right-back Mercado, who hooked the ball home past Bravo.
Victory was sweet for Argentina, putting their 2018 qualification bid firmly back on the road after a shaky start last year which saw them win only one of their opening four games.
"I'm very happy with the three points as it was important to come here and get a win," said Messi.
"I missed being with my team-mates. I felt really good in the first half but I was a bit tired in the second half," the Barcelona superstar added.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE