By JUSTIN FERGUSON
Dominating shutouts and a couple of last-minute goals highlighted Friday’s four World Cup Qualifiers from South America.
Argentina got its revenge and then some more in a 3-0 home win over Venezuela to maintain its four-point lead at the top of the table. Second-place Colombia would keep pace with the table leaders in a 5-0 drubbing of eighth-place Bolivia.
Uruguay was on its way to a much-needed win over Paraguay, but its visiting rival had the final say in the matter, equalizing in the 86th minute. Peru kept its qualification dreams alive with a Jefferson Farfan winner in the 87th minute, moving La Blanquirroja to just two points back from the final qualification slot.
Here is a closer look at all four of Friday’s CONMEBOL qualifiers:
ARGENTINA 3, VENEZUELA 0
First-place Argentina’s only loss in the current round of World Cup qualifying was back in October, when Venezuela got a historic first victory over La Albiceleste. Since that 1-0 loss, Argentina has gone on an unbeaten tear through qualifying, outscoring opponents 16-6.
Alejandro Sabella’s squad kept its impressive run going on Friday night, getting two goals from Gonzalo Higuain and a penalty conversion from Lionel Messi. After 28 minutes of stout goalkeeping from Venezuela’s Daniel Hernandez, Messi set up Higuain’s first with an excellent pass. Messi would get his chance to score just before halftime, converting a spot kick after Venezuela’s Gabriel Cichero was whistled for a handball inside the box.
Messi and Higuain would link up once more in the 58th minute to round out the home victory. Higuain received another perfect pass from his La Liga rival and slotted it past Hernandez, sealing three more points for La Albiceleste.
URUGUAY 1, PARAGUAY 1
These two South American rivals cancelled each other out for the second time on Friday night, playing out a 1-1 draw. After 81 minutes of back-and-forth goalless action, Luis Suarez registered his seventh goal of the qualification round for Uruguay. Only Argentina’s Messi and Higuain have scored as many goals as the Liverpool striker, who appeared to have given his side a much-needed win with his late strike on Friday.
But, once again, Paraguay found a way to equalize in the final moments of the match. Substitute forward Edgar Benitez pounced on a mistake from Uruguay captain Diego Lugano and laced a shot past Fernando Muslera with four minutes left in regular time.
Uruguay pushed for a late winner but was unable to find the back of the net. The 2010 World Cup semifinalists, who have failed to record a win in five straight matches now, hold on to the final automatic qualification spot as the fourth-place team in the table. The single point was not enough to move Paraguay out of last place, five points back from Uruguay.
COLOMBIA 5, BOLIVIA 0
Second-place Colombia kept the gap between itself and Argentina to four points with a 5-0 rout over Bolivia. Five different Colombians got on the scoresheet on Friday night, including high-profile striker Radamel Falcao.
After Macnelly Torres pushed Colombia out in front with a 20th minute goal, Bolivia decided to substitute Sergio Galarza for Carlos Arias at goalkeeper. The change would completely backfire for the visitors as Galarza conceded four second-half goals. Carlos Valdes and Teofilo Gutierrez scored in the first 17 minutes of the second frame, followed by Falcao and Pablo Armero in the final minutes of the match.
Colombia now has now won four straight qualifiers by a combined score of 15-1. Bolivia still remains seventh place in the table, but the loss allowed Paraguay to draw even in points.
PERU 1, CHILE 0
Peru recorded its first qualification win since September and kept the hopes of reaching Brazil alive with a dramatic 1-0 victory over Chile. Visiting Chile dominated possession and chances on goal, but Raul Fernandez kept the fifth-place country out of his net.
After Fernandez stopped three straight chances from Chile in the 82nd minute, Peru went on the offensive. Jefferson Farfan’s first shot four minutes later was saved, but the winger stayed with the play and powered the ball into the open net for the winner.
The win moved Peru past cellar-dwelling Bolivia and Paraguay in the table, and La Blanquirroja now sits just two points back from fourth-place Uruguay. Chile would have put more pressure on Uruguay if the scoreless draw had held up, but it remains level with Venezuela with 12 points.