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    Lionel Messi drives Argentina to 3-0 win over Venezuela

    Buenos Aires: Argentina look like the surest bet from South America to qualify for the Brazil World Cup after Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain again led the way in a 3-0 victory on Friday over Venezuela in qualifying. Higuain gave the Argentines a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute after making the most of a pass from Messi, who then made it 2-0 with a penalty in the 45th. Higuain picked up his second in the 59th, putting the game out of reach - again off a Messi pass.

    "It was a very important victory," Higuain said. "We won playing well and put points on the board."

    Argentina have solidified their lead atop the South America qualifying group with 23 points in 10 matches, four clear of Colombia and six ahead of Ecuador. Venezuela have 12 points from 10 matches. Messi's goal was his 32nd for Argentina, pulling him within two of Diego Maradona for third place behind Gabriel Batistuta (56) and Hernan Crespo (35).

    Venezuela, the only country in the South American confederation that has never qualified for the World Cup, were outmatched from the start against the Argentines.

    Messi was presented his fourth FIFA world player of the year award before the match by Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine Football Association and a FIFA vice president. The Barcelona star was greeted by a thundering ovation at Monumental stadium in the Argentine capital - the home of the River Plate club - and also received kiss on the cheek from Grondona.

    In other results in South America on Friday, Colombia defeated Bolivia 5-0 and Uruguay and Paraguay drew 1-1. Peru and Chile will play later on Saturday.

    The top four clubs in South America qualify automatically for the World Cup, and the fifth-place team face a playoff for a spot. Brazil as the host nation get an automatic berth.