Brazil’s march towards the 2018 World Cup gathered pace on Tuesday with a Neymar-inspired win over Colombia as Uruguay surged to the top of the South American qualification standings with a 4-0 rout of Paraguay.
Just four days after their first ever victory over Ecuador in Quito, Brazil dug deep to beat Colombia 2-1 in the Amazon jungle city of Manaus, courtesy of Neymar’s 74th-minute winner.
The result left Brazil -- who had started the day outside the automatic qualifying places -- in second place overall, just one point behind leaders Uruguay.
Argentina, who squandered the opportunity to maintain their lead after a 2-2 draw away to Venezuela, are third, trailing Brazil on goal difference with the two heavyweight rivals level on 15 points.
Brazil’s win over Colombia was the latest in a series of physical encounters between the two teams, who have skirmished regularly since the 2014 World Cup quarter-finals -- a match that saw Neymar exit with a tournament-ending injury.
Neymar, who was sent off against Colombia in a bruising Copa America battle in 2015, exacted his revenge with a sweetly struck low shot to decide Tuesday’s game.
It completed a memorable few weeks for the Barcelona superstar, who last month scored the winning penalty to give Brazil their first ever Olympic football gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Neymar’s Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez meanwhile was in similarly sparkling form for Uruguay in their 4-0 thrashing of Paraguay.
Paraguay had entered the match in Montevideo optimistic of an upset following their win over Copa America champions Chile last week.
But a magnificent individual performance from Suarez -- who laid on two goals for Edinson Cavani before scoring one himself from the penalty spot -- left Paraguay reflecting on a humbling defeat. Cristian Rodriguez scored the other goal for the Uruguayans.
The victory -- and the performance of Suarez and Cavani -- prompted Uruguay’s often stony-faced coach Oscar Tabarez to permit himself a smile.
“We have world class strikers,” Tabarez said. “Sometimes they win by presence, not necessarily because they’ve played well. We are satisfied because the team played well.”
Venezuela came within seven minutes of pulling off the upset of the day in their rain-lashed scrap with Argentina in Merida.
Argentina, missing injured captain Lionel Messi and a galaxy of attacking talent including Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala, needed an 83rd minute equaliser from Nicolas Otamendi to salvage a 2-2 draw.
Otamendi’s late strike -- turning in an Angel Di Maria corner -- completed a gutsy fightback from the Argentines, who had trailed 2-0 shortly after half-time following Venezuelan goals from Malaga’s Juanpi Anor and Torino’s Josef Martinez.
Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza praised his side’s courage after fighting back from 2-0.
“We wanted to win but we found ourselves losing 2-0,” Bauza said. “I take comfort from the way that the players responded when they conceded those two goals,” he added.
But while Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina were left heading the table, Chile were still struggling for answers after a 0-0 draw with Bolivia in Santiago.
The Chileans have been the form team in South America over the past two years, winning the 2015 Copa America and this year’s Centenary edition in the United States.
Yet their stalemate with Bolivia leaves them seventh overall with 11 points from eight game.
Ecuador meanwhile, the early pace-setters in qualifying with four wins in their opening four games, have slipped to fifth place after a 2-1 defeat in Lima against Peru.