PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil: Philippe Coutinho scored as Brazil defeated Ecuador 2-0 to clinch top spot in South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying race on Thursday (Friday in Manila).
Liverpool star Coutinho, who had been seen his hopes of a dream move to Barcelona dashed earlier Thursday as the transfer window closed with no deal, came off the substitutes bench to help break down a determined Ecuador.
The 25-year-old showed no sign of the back injury, which has prevented him from appearing for Liverpool so far in the Premier League in a livewire second half display.
New Barcelona signing Paulinho provided the breakthrough on 69 minutes before Coutinho engineered a fine second through neat play with Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus.
Brazil’s ninth consecutive qualifying victory gave the Selecao an 11-point lead at the top of the standings with three games to play, meaning they cannot be overhauled.
Brazil dominated the first half but was kept at bay thanks to an inspired performance from Ecuador goalkeeper Maximo Banguera.
Paulinho nearly marked his first international performance since completing his transfer to Barcelona with a superb individual goal in the eighth minute.
The 29-year-old midfielder weaved his way through the Ecuador defense only to see Banguera pull off a fine save to prevent the goal.
Banguera was pressed into action two minutes later when a shot by Chelsea midfielder Willian from just outside the area was diverted wide by a fingertip.
Jesus was the next to be thwarted by Banguera, who once again managed to steer a shot wide on 33 minutes.
Jesus should have opened the scoring in the 57th minute when a pinpoint cross from Dani Alves picked him out at the far post.
But with the goal gaping, Jesus could only head straight at Banguera, who parried over the bar.
However Banguera was powerless to prevent Brazil’s opener in the 69th minute. A corner from Willian dropped invitingly at Paulinho’s feet and this time the midfielder made no mistake, ramming his finish high into the net.
Brazil doubled their lead in the 76th minute with a sublimely worked goal, Coutinho finding Jesus with a lofted pass into the penalty area.
Jesus then lost the Ecuador defence with a wonderful flick before nodding the ball back into the path of Coutinho who finished from close range.