Argentina looks like the team it's supposed to be
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP)
Argentina has looked like the team it's supposed to be so far in World Cup qualifying: fluid and high-scoring with Lionel Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero leading the way.
Argentina faces neighbor Uruguay on Friday in one of four South America qualifiers. With due respect to Higuain and Aguero, Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez knows his defense needs to focus on Messi.
''We have to keep Messi from getting the ball,'' Tabarez said. ''His role has to be limited. It will be a disappointment if he's in the game and scores a goal.''
Also Friday, it's: Colombia vs. Paraguay; Ecuador vs. Chile; and Bolivia vs. Peru. Venezuela has the day off and Brazil qualifies automatically as host.
Argentina leads the qualifying group with 14 points. Colombia and Ecuador trail by one, Uruguay and Chile by two, and Venezuela by three. The three remaining teams are long shots to reach the 2014 World Cup: Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
Argentina has vastly improved under coach Alejandro Sabella, who took over after Sergio Batista was fired following last year's Copa America and the loss to Uruguay on penalties in the quarterfinals. It's the last time they played.
''You can't use that game as a comparison,'' Tabarez said. ''Argentina under Sabella is playing together as a team, which it wasn't a while back.''
Argentina is in good shape for the match in the western city of Mendoza, missing only backup forward Ezequiel Lavezzi with a knee injury. Uruguay will be without two injured defenders - Diego Perez and Gaston Ramierz.
''It's nice being in first place, but we're not relaxing,'' Messi said. ''You lose a game and you go down quickly in the standings.''
Colombia, which looks like Argentina's biggest challenger under Argentine-born coach Jose Pekerman, will be a strong favorite at home against Paraguay. Paraguay has played in the last four World Cups and reached the quarterfinals two years ago in South Africa, but with only four points it has little chance this time.
Colombia's main man is Atletico de Madrid striker Radamel Falcao, who shares the scoring lead in Spain with eight goals, the same as Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. He has three in South American qualifying, which is led by Higuain and Luis Suarez of Uruguay with six.
''You have to give Paraguay lots of respect and be up for it,'' Falcao said. ''You can't dismiss them.''
The weather could be a factor in the Colombian port city of Barranquilla, where temperatures could reach 34 degrees C (93 degrees F).
''Paraguay hasn't played well,'' Colombia midfielder Elkin Soto said. ''But that does not mean the team will not fight hard to win. We've got to be prepared to avoid surprises.''
Chile has a key match in Quito, Ecuador. Chile has two problems: Coach Claudio Borghi has been suspended for four matches, and there is also the matter of the altitude - 2,850 meters (9,350 feet) in Quito.
The Argentine-born Borghi picked up the four-game ban from FIFA for swearing at referee at a World Cup qualifier in June in Venezuela. He has already served one game and has said he plans to appeal to the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport.
''I didn't do this out of stubbornness. It's a question of survival,'' Borghi said. ''I'm not disrespectful. Maybe I'm a bit crude. I grew up in a tough neighborhood.''
Bolivia and Peru are fighting for survival. The game is being played in La Paz so, as always, Bolivia will have the advantage in the thin air at 3,500 meters (11,500 feet). The Peruvians have spent 10 days training in the Peruvian city of Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire located high in the Andes at 3,400 meters (11,200 feet).
''First, you have to be in shape physically to play well,'' Peru coach Sergio Markarian said.
It will be the first home match for Bolivia coach Xabier Azkargorta, the Spaniard who led Bolivia to the World Cup in 1994 - the last time it reached the final tournament. Bolivia lost to Ecuador 1-0 in Azkargorta's first match in charge.
South American teams are back in action on Tuesday, the last round until March 22. On Tuesday, it's: Bolivia vs. Uruguay; Paraguay vs. Peru; Chile vs. Argentina; and Venezuela vs. Ecuador. Colombia has that day off.
Follow Stephen Wade at http://twitter.com/StephenWadeAP