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Messi inspires Argentina in World Cup qualifying victory

Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring Argentina's third goal against Ecuador at the Monumental stadium in Buenos Aires.

Story highlights

  • Lionel Messi continues his incredible season as Argentina win World Cup qualifier
  • The 4-0 win in Buenos Aires puts Argentina top of South American group for 2014
  • Chile in second place after 2-0 win against bottom nation Bolivia
  • Japan win opening game of final round of Asian group qualifying matches

Argentina's star-studded team went top of South America's 2014 World Cup qualifying group as Lionel Messi inspired a 4-0 thrashing of Ecuador on Saturday.

With his top Europe-based players to call on, coach Alejandro Sabella saw his side effectively end the match with three goals after only half an hour.

Sergio Aguero, top scorer for English champions Manchester City last season, broke the deadlock in the 20th minute as he celebrated his 24th birthday in style.

Strike partner Gonzalo Higuain, who helped Real Madrid to the Spanish title, doubled the lead nine minutes later.

Barcelona's three-time world player of the year Messi made it 3-0 two minutes later to continue his unbelievable scoring form, having netted 73 times for the Spanish club in the recently-completed 2011-12 campaign.

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Real Madrid winger Angel Di Maria wrapped up the scoring with 15 minutes to play as Argentina moved up to 10 points from five games, just ahead of Chile.

    Messi was key to the victory, which came ahead of next Saturday's friendly against Brazil in the United States. The 2014 hosts lost 2-0 to Mexico in a friendly in Texas on Sunday.

    He combined with Di Maria to set up Aguero's opener and then linking with Higuain for his own goal before also setting up the final effort.

    Chile moved onto nine points from five matches with a 2-0 win over bottom team Bolivia, who had Luis Gutierrez sent off in the second half.

    Midfielder Charles Aranguiz scored against the run of play just before halftime in La Paz, then Gutierrez saw red for a foul on Barcelona's Alexis Sanchez before Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal wrapped it up with seven minutes to play.

    Uruguay had earlier gone top on eight points from four games despite being held 1-1 at home by Venezuela, with striker Diego Forlan's 39th-minute opener canceled out by Salomon Rondon's late goal.

    In Asian qualifying, regional champions Japan started the final round with a 3-0 win over Oman in a Group B tie on Sunday.

    CSKA Moscow midfielder Keisuke Honda scored in the first half, while Japan-based Ryoichi Maeda doubled the lead after halftime and his blocked shot later allowed Stuttgart striker Shinji Okazaki to seal the victory.

    "The importance of winning the first match, the players were very well aware of that and so the match went exactly as I had expected," said Japan's Italian coach Alberto Zaccheroni. "Before the match some of the players were a little bit too nervous."

    Jordan came from behind to draw 1-1 with Iraq in Sunday's other Group B fixture in Amman.

    Ahmad Hayel equalized just before halftime after an early opener by Nashat Akram.

    Iran snatched a 1-0 win away to Uzbekistan in Group A as substitute Mohammad Reza Khalatbari scored on the counterattack in time added on with virtually the last kick of the game.

    "We have won a very important match. We won the match because we have a great coach and players and we played well," said Iran's former Real Madrid and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz.

    "I knew Uzbekistan would go forward in the last minutes, that's why we changed our tactics and tried to score from counterattacks. We did it and our changes brought us three points."

    Qatar won 1-0 away to Lebanon in the other Groupm A fixture, with Uruguay-born striker Sebastian Soria taking advantage of a defensive mistake to score the only goal just after the hour mark.

    In African qualifying, Nigeria edged out Namibia 1-0 at Calabar thanks to an 80th-minute goal from Spain-based striker Ikechukwu Uche.

    Kenya drew 0-0 with Malawi in Sunday's other Group F opening-round match.

    New Benin coach Manuel Amoros enjoyed a 1-0 win over Group H rivals Mali, who finished third at January's Africa Cup of Nations.

    Togo drew 1-1 with Libya in Group I while Niger and Gabon battled to a stalemate in Group E.

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