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Lionel Messi led his Argentina players off the pitch after a brawl erupted before kick-off in their World Cup qualifier against Brazil at the Maracana Stadium. Nicolas Otamendi scored the only goal of the game to hand Argentina victory over their traditional rivals in a bad-tempered match that was delayed by over 30 minutes due to violence in the stands.
Tensions boiled over during the pre-match national anthems as Brazilian police charged a section of Argentina fans in response to fighting in the stands. Some fans responded by ripping out seats and throwing them at officers, while others panicked and went onto the pitch to avoid the chaos unfolding around them.
At least one fan was taken away on a stretcher with Argentina's players going over to the stands in a bid to calm the situation. They went on to head back down the tunnel, led by Messi, just moments before the match was supposed to kick off as the Brazil players and the referee stayed on the pitch.
The game eventually started 30 minutes behind schedule after the fighting had died down, with Argentina snatching a narrow win thanks to Otamendi's second-half header. The pre-match chaos set the tone for the on-pitch action in the first 45 minutes, which saw 22 fouls committed in a boisterous affair at Brazil's national stadium.
Brazil were the better side for much of the game and nearly scored the opening goal when Gabriel Martinelli's attempt was cleared off the line by Cristian Romero. Another chance went begging after the break as Martinelli fired a close-range effort into the hands of Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez before Otamendi rose highest from a corner to give the visitors the lead.
Argentina managed to hang on for all three points after scoring with their only attempt on target, while Brazil were clearly missing a number of their injured players such as Neymar and Vinicius Junior. It went from bad to worse for the hosts when Joelinton was sent off in the closing stages for hitting Rodrigo De Paul in the face just minutes after coming on from the bench.
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After the final whistle, Messi described the result as 'one of the most important wins' for Argentina in recent memory despite the 36-year-old being more concerned with the pre-game violence in the stands.
"Obviously, at the beginning it was bad because we saw how they were beating people," said Messi. "You think about the family, the people who are there, who don’t know what’s going on and we are more concerned about that than playing a match. At that point the match was secondary.
"After that, winning this game like this I think is one of the most important wins that this group has achieved. It is something very nice to be able to win here in Brazil, after how strong they have been at home throughout their history."