Lionel Messi stashed his Barcelona preoccupations aside to fire Argentina to an opening 1-0 victory over Ecuador in the World Cup qualifying game on Thursday.
The 33-year-old supremo had been in open conflict with his club but it seemingly produced no detrimental effect on his form as his 13th minute penalty was the difference in a tight encounter as the six-time Ballon d’Or winner seemed much happier in the light blue and white jersey of his country despite earlier having unsuccessfully tried to force his way out of the Catalan giants in the close season.
And Argentina obviously needed him to be in top form in a bid to avoid slipping up at home to Ecuador for the second successive time in an opening World Cup qualifier, having lost 2-0 to the same opponents four years ago.
The atmosphere was eerily surreal in an empty Bombonera – the iconic Buenos Aires stadium that is usually effervescent from the passion of fervent fans – but Argentina never looked in danger of another shock defeat, with the hosts dominating possession yet struggling to break down an organized and physical Ecuador outfit that had proved to be a totally different proposition to the one dispatched 6-1 in a friendly a year ago.
The breakthrough came after a reckless challenge by Pervis Estupinan sent Lucas Ocampo sprawling in the box, with Messi stepping up to blaze home his 71st international goal.
Ocampos was presented with a glorious chance to double the lead early in the second half but goalkeeper Alexander Dominguez dived full length to keep out his low shot from eight yards. Rodrigo De Paul fired narrowly wide for the hosts with the last kick of the match.