Argentina remain four points clear at the top of South American World Cup qualifying thanks to a 3-0 win at home to Venezuela.
Real Madrid’s Gonzalo Higuain netted a brace in the victory at Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti, while Barcelona star Lionel Messi was on target from the penalty spot.
The win saw Alejandro Sabella’s team restore their buffer at the top of the CONMEBOL group.
Second-placed Colombia had briefly closed the gap to just one point thanks to a 5-0 victory at home to Bolivia earlier in the day.
Playing in front of their own fans for the first time in 2013, Argentina came out looking for early goals, with Messi the man expected to make the difference.
The Barca livewire had the crowd on their feet in the first few minutes when he skipped in on goal, but his shot was palmed away by goalkeeper Dani Hernandez.
Argentina looked confident throughout the first half, pushing men forward and looking to stretch a timid Venezuela.
Hernandez again saved well from Messi after he played a fluid one-two with Gonzalo Higuain, and Ezequiel Lavezzi just failed to pounce on the rebound with the net gaping.
It was not long, however, before the hosts took the initiative.
Walter Montillo had gained a place in the first team thanks to Angel Di Maria’s suspension, and the Santos man was determined to grab it with both hands.
A quick pass to Messi was followed with a ball that cut through the away defence, and the beneficiary was Gonzalo Higuain, as the striker slotted home clean through against Hernandez.
Argentina were now in complete control, as Venezuela were reduced to spoiling play, with plenty of fouls, in an attempt to keep a handle on their rivals.
Sabella’s men went in at the break two goals up, albeit thanks to more than a stroke of good fortune.
Gabriel Cichero misjudged a ball under pressure in his own box and instinctively threw out an arm, an act which led to a penalty in the final minutes of the half.
There was no doubt over who would take the kick. Messi placed the ball on the spot, and blasted an unstoppable effort past Hernandez to send Argentina into the break in a comfortable position.
The keeper was beginning to loathe the sight of the little number 10 and he again had to stop Messi minutes after the restart.
Showing incredible balance and control, the exciting forward weaved through the defence and tried to lift the ball over Hernandez, who managed to get enough of his body in the way to prevent a third goal.
Montillo also went close after a fantastic turn from Fernando Gago, his shot floating just wide of the right-hand post.
Just before the hour-mark, the two goal-scorers combined again to end the game as a contest.
Messi made space in the middle and demonstrated his vision to release a perfect pass.
Even if there was more than a suspicion of offside about Higuain’s position when the ball was played, there was no doubt about the quality of a cool finish that put the Madrid man out in front as top scorer in the CONMEBOL qualifiers.
Venezuela still chased a consolation goal, and went close thanks to a great individual move from Cichero.
The full-back was keen to redeem himself and blasted his way to the by-line, but his low cross was spooned over by substitute Romulo Otero with the defence out of position and the goal gaping.
It was all to no avail, however – the hosts were already on the way to victory, and continued their confident march to next year’s FIFA World Cup in neighbouring Brazil.
Next up for Argentina is a potentially difficult assignment away to Bolivia on Tuesday, while Venezuela, sixth in the group, are due to host Colombia.
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