Lionel Messi helps Argentina qualify
Two Lionel Messi penalties helped Argentina become the first team from the CONMEBOL qualifying zone to secure their place at next summer's World Cup finals with a comprehensive victory over Paraguay in Asuncion.
Jose Nunez cancelled out Messi's early opener, but further goals from Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria and Messi again put Alejandro Sabella's Albicelestes firmly in control.
Roque Santa Cruz grabbed a second goal in the 86th minute, but Maxi Rodriguez swiftly restored the visitors' three-goal cushion in the final minute to ensure Argentina qualified for next year's tournament in Brazil in some style - and with two games to spare.
Barcelona forward Messi got the Argentinians off to the perfect start by converting a 12th-minute spot-kick after Aguero had been fouled by Paraguay goalkeeper Roberto Fernandez.
Paraguay equalised six minutes later when Nunez connected with a cross from the left - albeit with a little help from Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero, who failed to catch an easy ball.
The visitors restored their lead in the 31st minute through Manchester City forward Aguero, who produced a superb left-footed finish despite the close attention of two defenders.
Real Madrid's Di Maria made it 3-1 four minutes after the interval following a fine pass from Fernando Gago, and Messi despatched another spot-kick three minutes later to further widen the gap. Santa Cruz reduced the deficit in the closing stages, but Maxi consolidated the win one minute from the end.
The triumph moved Argentina onto 29 points in the Conmebol qualifying zone - three above Colombia, who lost 2-0 against Uruguay in Montevideo earlier on Tuesday.
Di Maria has set his sights on finishing top of the standings, before - rather more ambitiously - lifting the cup in Brazil next year.
He told local Channel 7: "We have two games left and we hope to finish this competition as well as possible. If we are champions, it would be great. We have to go step by step. A great group was built by Alejandro (Sabella) and we are very happy."
Messi said on Fox Sports: "Qualification was the goal we've been looking for for a long time. Achieving that with two games remaining is very important.
"We have achieved our goal and now we are hoping to keep winning and progressing. We are on the right path but there is a long way to go yet in order to reach the World Cup tournament in the best form.
"The World Cup is seven games and you have to be in perfect form. You cannot make mistakes. We have already beaten big teams, but we still need to make some improvements to be world champions."
Colombia failed to secure their qualification for the 2014 World Cup on Tuesday night, going down 2-0 to Uruguay in the South American qualifying zone.
A draw in Montevideo would have earned the Cafeteros a place in next summer's finals in Brazil, but late goals from Edinson Cavani and Christian Stuani gave Uruguay the victory. The result boosted Uruguay's hopes of qualifying as it kept them in fifth place - the position that will face a play-off against Jordan for a World Cup finals spot.
Colombia dominated in the opening stages at the Estadio Centenario but Uruguay snatched victory through Cavani's 76th-minute header and a Stuani strike four minutes later.
"In the second half, our attitude was very different,'' Uruguay and Liverpool striker Luis Suarez said. "We played much better than in the first half. We built more opportunities to score and you can see it in the score.''
Colombia's Argentina-born boss Jose Nestor Pekerman struggled to hide his disappointment, saying: "Our idea was to qualify (to the World Cup) tonight.
"We were determined to do so, but we couldn't. I think a lot of what Colombia has was shown tonight. We tried to play good football against very important rivals.''
Uruguay moved level on points with fourth-spotted Ecuador - but behind on goal difference - thanks to bottom-placed Bolivia holding the Ecuadorians to a 1-1 draw in La Paz.
The hosts dominated a goalless first half before taking the lead two minutes into the second period through substitute Jaime Arrascaita. Felipe Caicedo got the visitors back on level terms from the penalty spot 10 minutes later after Ronald Raldes had fouled Jefferson Montero in the box.
Sixth-placed Venezuela remained three points behind Uruguay courtesy of a 3-2 win against Peru in Puerto la Cruz. Paolo Hurtado put the visitors ahead in the 19th minute, only for Salomon Rondon to restore parity nine minutes before the interval.
Cesar Gonzalez's penalty edged the Vinotinto ahead just after the hour mark and Romulo Otero stretched their advantage in the 76th minute. Carlos Zambrano gave Peru a glimmer of hope by reducing the deficit three minutes from time, but they could not find an equaliser.
Information from the Press Association was used in this report.