Messi, Argentina crush shy Venezuela

Argentina looks like the surest bet from South America to qualify for the World Cup after Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain again led the way in a 3-0 victory Friday over Venezuela in qualifying.

Higuain gave the Argentines a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute after making the most of a pass from Messi, who then made it 2-0 with a penalty in the 45th. Higuain picked up his second in the 59th, putting the game out of reach – again off a Messi pass.

”It was a very important victory,” Higuain said. ”We won playing well and put points on the board.”

Argentina solidified its lead atop the South America qualifying group with 23 points in 10 matches, four clear of Colombia six ahead of Ecuador. Venezuela has 12 from 10 matches.

Messi’s goal was his 32nd for Argentina, pulling him within two of Diego Maradona for third place behind Gabriel Batistuta (56) and Hernan Crespo (35).

Venezuela, the only country in the South American confederation that has never qualified for the World Cup, was outmatched from the start against the Argentines.

Messi was presented his fourth FIFA world player of the year award before the match by Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine Football Association and a FIFA vice president.

The Barcelona star was greeted by a thundering ovation at Monumental stadium in the Argentine capital – the home of the River Plate club – and also received kiss on the cheek from Grondona.

In other results in South America on Friday, Colombia defeated Bolivia 5-0 and Uruguay and Paraguay drew 1-1. Peru and Chile played later Saturday.

The top four clubs in South America qualify automatically for the World Cup, and the fifth-place team faces a playoff for a spot. Brazil as the host nation gets an automatic berth.