South America: Messi, Aguero and Higuain shine
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Looking back, the 4-0 victory over Ecuador on Saturday with Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria scoring may be the moment that star-studded Argentina finally began to meet expectations.
The Gauchos were in control from the first minute, producing the quick passes and perfect finishing that's expected from a team that has four of the world's best forwards playing up front together.
"I'm happy because we won on my birthday,'' said Aguero, who turned 24 on Saturday.
In addition to the Fab Four, Argentine coach Alejandro Sabella is also coming in for praise after failed efforts by Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista to organize the abundant talent. Maradona failed in the 2010 World Cup, and Batista disappointed last year in the Copa America.
This time Argentina looked like a team.
"The forwards we have on this team have a tremendous pedigree,'' Sabella said. "Luckily at the moment we are playing well. We want to stay on this path - at times more conservative and at times with more offense.''
Fans at River Plate's Monumental Stadium seemed as confident as the players, cheering every goal and attack.
"This boosts the confidence of the players, and the fans get more confident too,'' Sabella said. "It works both ways. We have players on this team who have had good seasons and have won many championships.''
The Gauchos improved to 10 points in five matches. Chile has nine in five. Uruguay has eight, but has played only four. Venezuela has eight in five games. Ecuador has six in four matches.
In other South American qualifiers on Saturday, Venezuela rallied to draw 1-1 against Uruguay in Montevideo.
In La Paz, Bolivia, Chile defeated Bolivia 2-0. On Sunday, Colombia plays at Peru. Brazil is hosting the 2014 World Cup and qualifies automatically.
Aguero opened the scoring in the 23rd, before Higuain doubled the advantage in the 30th, taking a through pass from Lionel Messi. Messi scored two minutes later, this time passing to Higuain who returned the ball for the Barcelona star to drill it high into the net.
Angel Di Maria added the final goal in the 76th.
"The coach (Sabella) bet on an offensive lineup, and the important thing was to return the confidence,'' Higuain said. "It was a game to win and be the leaders. We played a good game and the fans are happy. So are we.''
Added Messi: "We have to continue like this. It's a long haul.''
Messi, often criticized in Argentina for seldom showing the form he does at Barcelona, almost scored another in the 69th, breaking from the right side and shooting on-target with keeper Alexander Dominguez leaping to bat away the shot.
Messi scored a record-setting 73 goals this season with Barcelona. He broke the previous European club record of 67 by Bayern Munich striker Gerd Mueller in 1972-73, and a world club mark of 70 set by Archie Stark of Bethlehem Steel in the American Soccer League in 1924-25.
Argentina has a bye in the next round of qualifiers on June 9-10, playing a friendly against Brazil on June 9 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
In La Paz, Charles Aranguiz scored in first-half injury time and Arturo Vidal added another in the second half to lead Chile to its 2-0 victory over Bolivia.
Bolivia was reduced to 10 men after Luis Gutierrez was sent off in the 54th for a straight red card.
The three points are critical for Chile, which won in the thin air of La Paz at 3,600 meters (11,800 feet). Most teams struggle at the altitude.
In Montevideo, Jose Rondon scored on a header in the 84th minute to give surprising Venezuela its 1-1 draw with Uruguay.
Diego Forlan scored in the 39th for Uruguay in a match that - except for the two goals - was lackluster until heating up near the end.
Uruguay is unbeaten in 16 matches and rated the best team in South America. Uruguay finished fourth in the 2010 World Cup, won the Copa America last year and has soared to a historic best of No. 3 in the FIFA rankings.
Venezuela is the only team in the South American confederation yet to play in a World Cup.
In Washington, Carlo Costly and Allan Lalin scored in the second half and Honduras beat El Salvador 3-0 on Saturday in the final tuneup for both teams before resuming World Cup qualifying.
Victor Bernardez also scored early for Honduras, which opens Group C play in CONCACAF's third round of qualifying at home against Canada on Friday. Emilio Izaguirre set up two of the goals with crosses from the wing.
Honduras' Brayan Beckles was sent off for a reckless challenge in the 84th minute, moments before Lalin's goal.
El Salvador, which struggled to create chances after halftime in front of a sellout crowd of 41,780, opens Group B play on Friday against Costa Rica.
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