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 By Tim Vickery

Ecuador stun Argentina, Alexis Sanchez inspires Chile against Brazil

Opening defeats for Brazil against Chile and for Argentina at home to Ecuador -- welcome to the most competitive World Cup qualification campaign around.

Since its establishment in 1996, the marathon format in South America, with all 10 nations playing each other home and away, has resulted in a massive rise in standards. With regular competitive games and guaranteed income, the less traditional football nations have been able to grow.

Ecuador had their best ever World Cup in 2006, as did Paraguay in 2010 and Colombia in 2014 -- while the last two tournaments are the best in Chile's history, with the exception of 1962, which it hosted.

These four nations were all winners on match-day one of the 2018 campaign, with pride of place going to Ecuador for a historic 2-0 triumph away to Argentina.

Ecuador had only ever won five World Cup qualifiers before 1996. They have since won plenty more, but usually at the altitude of Quito. Now they came down from the mountain to put two late goals past Argentina in Buenos Aires.

In truth, this had always looked like an intriguing match-up. Last month, after late goals from Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero had saved his side from defeat against Mexico, Argentina coach Gerardo Martino made a confession.

"I understand that we're leaving ourselves exposed to the opposing counter-attack," he said.

But it is one thing to take such risks with Messi and Aguero and another thing entirely when they are missing. Messi, of course, is injured, and Aguero picked up a muscular problem and limped off after just 20 minutes.

Carlos Tevez did not prove an effective replacement, and for all Argentina's possession, they rarely threatened a breakthrough. Ecuador coach Gustavo Quinteros had drilled his defence well, and with Jefferson Montero and Antonio Valencia lively down the flanks, there was always the prospect of an upset.

Decisive in the late finale was the physical dominance of Valencia over Argentina left-back Emmanuel Mas. The Manchester United winger powered his way through Mas to win the corner from which centre-back Fricson Erazo nodded home. Valencia then raced past the left-back and squared for Felipe Caicedo to slot in the clincher.

Ecuador should be able to celebrate in style with a home match against a poor Bolivia side on Tuesday while Martino will have to dwell long and hard on the balance of his team for the trip to Paraguay.

Brazil also went down 2-0, though in more different circumstances, away to recently crowned continental champions Chile. It was a harsh welcome to World Cup qualification for almost all of the team. As tournament hosts in 2014, Brazil did not have to book their place, so few of the players had experience of the task ahead of them in Santiago.

But that does not apply to coach Dunga, who was in charge for the 2010 campaign. That team counter-attacked its way to South Africa, in a campaign where the performances were not always as good as the results.

Brazil's counter-attack carried a threat, and Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli was forced into a first half tactical change after Dunga's men took control. He switched from a back three to a line of four in an attempt to block the counter. It was largely successful, but Brazil still had chances to open up the rival defence. But without Neymar, and with Oscar in frustratingly wasteful form, few clear chances were created.

The longer the game stayed scoreless, the more the team's central midfield limitations were exposed. Elias, supposedly the all-rounder, was barely noticed. Luiz Gustavo, the holding midfielder, alternated good moments with silly mistakes -- such as the needless foul he committed out towards the touchline, from which Mathias Fernandez whipped in a free kick and Eduardo Vargas got in front of Marquinhos to volley through keeper Jefferson.

Luiz Gustavo was substituted as Brazil strained for an equaliser. Without him it was almost too easy for Alexis Sanchez to carve his way though, play an inspired little pass out right to Arturo Vidal and then tap in from the return cross.

It was a fine piece of football, a fitting high point of the first round of a marathon campaign that promises plenty of drama along the way.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.

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