Buenos Aires – Lionel Messi scored once and set up two goals as Argentina beat Venezuela 3-0 to remain in control of the South American qualifying race for the 2014 World Cup.
The Argentinian skipper was the architect of two Gonzalo Higuain strikes, which came either side of an emphatic Messi penalty on the stroke of half-time at the Monumental Stadium yesterday.
The Barcelona superstar was Argentina’s best player throughout, twice forcing Daniel Hernandez into scrambled saves early on before producing the pass that enabled Higuain to break the deadlock on 29 minutes.
Messi then harried Venezuela defender Gabriel Cichero into conceding a penalty, which the diminutive play maker lashed into the roof of the net for 2-0 in first-half stoppage time.
A trademark jinking run and through ball for Higuain gave Argentina their third in the 59th minute as Venezuela kissed goodbye to any chance of repeating their shock 1-0 win over the Argentinians in 2011.
The victory leaves Alejandro Sabella’s side four points clear of second-placed Colombia at the top of the standings with 23 points after 10 matches.
With just six games remaining, only an unthinkable collapse will prevent the “Albicelestes” from taking their place at next year’s finals in Brazil, with a trip to La Paz to face Bolivia on Tuesday their next game.
“Argentina beat Venezuela handsomely,” said Sabella, who took over after Argentina’s disappointing Copa America campaign at home in 2011.
“The defence was solid. Higuain is a great goal scorer and Messi, well ... there are no words to describe him,” added the 58-year-old.
In other games, Colombia remained on course to end their 16-year World Cup exile after sweeping aside Bolivia 5-0 in Barranquilla.
Goals from Macnelly Torres, Carlos Valdez, Teofilo Gutierrez, Radamel Falcao and Pablo Armero secured an easy win as Colombia leapfrogged Ecuador into second place in the standings.
But Paraguay, who had rarely threatened during a stop-start game scarred by some rugged tackling, plucked an equaliser against the run of play four minutes later when substitute Edgar Benitez slotted home.
The draw saw Uruguay inch into the automatic qualifying spots, leapfrogging Venezuela in fourth, but coach Oscar Tabarez will be left ruing his team’s failure to take all three points.
In Friday’s late match, Jefferson Farfan’s 87th-minute goal lifted hosts Peru to a 1-0 victory over Chile in Lima.
The first four finishers in South America’s round-robin tournament will qualify automatically for Brazil, with the fifth-placed side facing a play-off against the fifth-placed side from Asia.