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Brazil on top as Chile, Argentina struggle

Montevideo, Uruguay | AFP | 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 more.

Liverpool star Coutinho, who had seen his hopes of a dream move to Barcelona dashed earlier 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.

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