Messi masterclass dazzles Ecuador
Argentina climbed top of the South American World Cup qualifying group as Lionel Messi inspired them to a comfortable 4-0 win over Ecuador.
Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, Messi and Angel Di Maria scored a goal apiece, but it was the Barcelona man, often a source of frustration to Argentina fans, who took the applause of the home crowd.
Di Maria chipped the ball over the Ecuadorian defence after 20 minutes and Aguero scored with a cross-shot on his 24th birthday.
Then Messi began his masterclass. First he received the ball from Gago, beat three defenders and set up Higuain, whose classy finish beat Dominguez.
Then he ran 35 yards before passing to Higuain, who returned the ball with his first touch for Messi to guide home his 23rd goal for Argentina.
Fifteen minutes before the end, Messi rubbed the lamp again with a magical run. He left four Ecuadorians behind and shot, but the ball hit Jayro Campos. Substitute Jose Sosa grabbed the rebound and passed to Di Maria, who volleyed home to round off the scoring.
Captain Messi said: "We've always searched for the connection with the fans. It was a hard game, but we came through it well. Now we have to use every game to improve as a team.''
Aguero added: "It was a very nice birthday present. We're also very happy because the people trust in us again.''
The win put Argentina top of the South American qualifying table with ten points from five games, one more than Chile and two ahead Uruguay and Venezuela.
An 84th-minute strike by Salomon Rondon silenced the Centenario Stadium and gave Venezuela a 1-1 draw in Uruguay in the fifth round of South American World Cup qualifiers.
It was a disappointing performance from the Copa America champions as they were way off their best and struggled to threaten Renny Vega's goal.
Midway through an uninspiring first half, Benfica's Maximiliano Pereira tested Vega with a long-range shot and the keeper then produced a great reaction stop to keep out Diego Forlan's header.
Six minutes before half-time Pereira escaped down the right and crossed the ball to Forlan, who controlled and opened the scoring with a left-foot shot.
In the second half Uruguay only had one chance of note, a header by Diego Lugano well saved by Colo Colo keeper Vega.
Venezuela coach Cesar Farias sent on Wolfsburg playmaker Yohandry Orozco and Nicolas Fedor, and it was the Getafe forward who provided the assist for Rondon to level with a header.
Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez said: "Nobody here is happy because we all want to win, but I think the result was fair. This shows the improvement of Venezuelan football. Congratulations to them.''
Pereira added: "The team have an unpleasant sensation. Despite not playing well, we controlled the match and to suffer a goal at the end was a huge blow.''
Man-of-the-match Vega said: "We are very happy and proud of this result. I think we were very clever and never gave up. That was the key.''
The result means that the Celestes and the Vinotintos each have eight points.
Meanwhile, in La Paz, Chile recorded a valuable 2-0 away victory over rock-bottom Bolivia.
As the Chileans struggled to acclimatise to the altitude early on, keeper Claudio Bravo saved his side on several occasions, notably from Jhasmany Campos' free-kick and a Ricardo Pedriel header.
In the last move before the half-time, Colo Colo midfielder Charles Aranguiz took advantage of a defensive mistake to open the scoring.
Chile started to control the game in the second half thanks to Barcelona forward Alexis Sanchez, who was the subject of a hard tackle from Luis Gutierrez which earned the midfielder a red card.
And seven minutes before the end, a good individual goal by Arturo Vidal of Juventus sealed the match.