Lionel Messi's goal in the 16th minute was the difference as Argentina beat Chile 1-0 Thursday in a 2018 World Cup qualifier at the El Monumental in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
While five more matchdays remain after Thursday, both Argentina and Chile entered El Monumental looking for a positive result.
The host has largely been a mess behind the scenes, with the 2014 death of Argentina Football Association chief Julio Grondona exacerbating the internal turmoil. Those problems have spilled onto the pitch, in the form of Messi's brief retirement and the departure of former coach Gerardo Martino.
Argentina's qualifying campaign hasn't improved drastically under Martino's successor, Edgardo Bauza, either. La Albiceleste beat Colombia 3-0 last November, but that was preceded by draws to Venezuela and Peru and defeats to Paraguay and Brazil.
Through 12 matches in World Cup qualifying, Argentina was a point behind Chile for fifth place in the CONMEBOL table.
The reigning Copa America champion has had problems of their own on the road to the 2018 World Cup. Chile hasn't won consecutive qualifying matches since beating Peru 4-3 in October 2015.
Despite the array of world-class attackers on the pitch, the first half featured little in the way of entertainment. David Cartlidge of beIN Sports criticized the performance of both countries:
Jose Fuenzalida appeared to give Chile a 1-0 lead in the seventh minute after he poked the ball into the Argentina goal following a goal-line scramble. The linesman, however, ruled the Chilean midfielder offside.
Fuenzalida then played an instrumental role in Argentina's scoring the first goal. The referee awarded Argentina a penalty after Fuenzalida fouled Angel Di Maria in the 18-yard box.
Messi stepped up to the penalty spot and sent Claudio Bravo the wrong way to put Argentina ahead in the 16th minute. The goal was somewhat poetic for the five-time Ballon d'Or winner after he missed a penalty in the Copa America Centenario final:
Messi's former Barcelona teammate Alexis Sanchez nearly delivered an equalizer in the 65th minute. His free kick from just outside the 18-yard box caromed off the crossbar.
Chile maintained possession and worked the ball out wide to Jean Beausejour. His low cross in from the left found Nicolas Castillo, who forced Sergio Romero to make a quick reaction save.
Chile had a penalty shot denied in the 74th minute when the referee determined Nicolas Otamendi fouled Alexis just outside the box. The Arsenal forward's free kick sailed well high of the crossbar.
Castillo should've leveled the score in the 79th minute but missed the target from close range with what was Chile's last chance to take anything from the match.
Instead, La Roja slipped to sixth in the qualifying table following Thursday's defeat. They play Venezuela, who sit in last place, in their next match, so coach Juan Antonio Pizzi will expect a strong response from his team.
As Vice Sports' Aaron Gordon argued, Argentina continue to underwhelm given the talent at its disposal:
Argentina climbed to third, which gives Bauza's side some security. A match away with Bolivia at altitude in La Paz won't be easy, though.
During 2014 World Cup qualifying, Argentina drew 1-1 with Bolivia. Messi vomited at halftime—such was his difficulty with the thin air.
A draw or defeat to Bolivia would erase the optimism Thursday's victory generated for the two-time world champions.
"We suffered because we lost the ball but at least we won," Bauza said, per Reuters' Rex Gowar.
Bauza also dismissed the idea Argentina remains largely dependent on its best player, per Argentine football journalist Sam Kelly: "I don't think we're Messidependent. Lionel played well today. As much as we could, we [attacked] well."
According to Kelly, Pizzi thought Chile should've come away with at least a point from the match but things don't always break right on the pitch.
"Sometimes those decisions benefit you," Pizzi said of the officiating. "Sometimes they go against you."