MONTEVIDEO • 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 on Thursday, while Chile and Argentina stumbled once again.
The Liverpool star, who had seen his hopes of a dream move to Barcelona dashed earlier on Thursday as the English 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, the midfielder 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.
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 wrong-footed the covering Ecuador defence with a sublime flick and then headed back into the path of Coutinho, who finished emphatically.
The win was Brazil's ninth consecutive qualifying win and gives the five-time World Cup winners an 11-point cushion with three games remaining, meaning they cannot be overhauled.
The top four teams in South America's round-robin competition qualify automatically for next year's World Cup Finals in Russia, with the fifth-placed team facing a play-off.
The scramble for automatic qualification will go down to the wire, with only two points separating second-placed Colombia (25 points) and fifth-placed Argentina (23).
Paraguay also thrust themselves into contention with a stunning 3-0 away win over Chile in Santiago.
The loss capped an unhappy 24 hours for unsettled Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez, who barely featured in a poor Chile display.
Paraguay moved up to sixth spot with 21 points - just two points behind Argentina, who endured another frustrating outing after being held to a 0-0 draw by Uruguay in Montevideo.
The draw means Uruguay remain third in the standings on 24 points, one behind Colombia, who were held to a 0-0 draw by eliminated Venezuela in San Cristobal.