CORDOBA, Argentina (AP) — Argentina beat Paraguay 3-1 while Colombia and Ecuador notched victories in World Cup qualifiers on Friday to boost their chances of booking a place at Brazil 2014.
Argentina's win moved it top of the standings with 13 points, ahead of Chile and Ecuador on 12, Uruguay on 11 and Colombia on 10; all having played six of 16 games. The top four qualify directly for the World Cup, along with regional rival Brazil as host, while the fifth team faces a playoff against Asian opposition.
Argentina's victory resulted from a combination of the Spanish league powers. Real Madrid pair Angel di Maria and Gonzalo Higuain scored first-half goals, followed by Barcelona star Lionel Messi. Messi had hit the woodwork twice before scoring on a splendid free kick in the 65th minute.
Jonathan Fabbro, an Argentine-born defender who is a nationalized Paraguayan, had temporarily brought the visitors level with a first-half penalty.
"We won a very important game to remain in this good path," said Di Maria after Argentina's first win over Paraguay in a World Cup qualifier at home in 39 years.
"Leading the standings is not that important. What really matters is strengthening our team to reach the World Cup in Brazil in the best possible shape," said Messi.
Striker Ezequiel Lavezzi said "Argentina deserved the victory, but it was a tough match."
The result left Paraguay bottom of the standings with just four points from six games and with an uphill task of qualifying for 2014, having made the quarterfinals in 2010.
Colombia moved within a point of Uruguay with a convincing 4-0 win. Atletico Madrid striker Falcao put the hosts ahead in the second minute, Teofilo Gutierrez padded the lead with two goals in four minutes early in the second half and Camilo Zuniga added a fourth in stoppage time.
Ecuador struggled past lowly Bolivia 1-0, with the sole goal coming in the 74th minute when substitute Felipe Caicedo converted a penalty. Ecuador moved up to third in the standings while Bolivia is only above last-placed Paraguay on goal difference.
Peru won 2-1 at home against Venezuela to move out of last place while dropping Venezuela out of the top five. Juan Arango had put Venezuela ahead in the 43rd minute, but the hosts quickly repaired the damage in the second half, as Jefferson Farfan scored in the 47th and 59th minutes. The visitor's chances of mounting a comeback were dashed when Gabriel Cichero was sent off in the 67th.
Qualifying resumes on Tuesday with Argentina away to Peru, Uruguay hosting Ecuador, Chile at home against Colombia and in the Chilean capital of Santiago and Paraguay travelling to Venezuela.