MONTEVIDEO, March 30 – Lionel Messi scored his 50th international goal as Argentina notched their third straight victory in South America’s 2018 World Cup qualifying tournament, while Brazil snatched a dramatic late draw against Paraguay on Tuesday.
Messi swept in an emphatic spot-kick after half an hour to help Argentina to a 2-0 win over Bolivia at the Estadio Mario Kempes in Cordoba, lifting the two-time world champions to third in the overall standings.
The Barcelona superstar’s goalscoring exploits make him only the second player in Argentine history to reach a half century of goals.
The 28-year-old striker is now closing in on legendary scorer Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 56 goals, set between 1991 and 2002.
Messi now also needs only one more goal to reach 500 goals for club and country — raising the prospect that he could achieve that milestone with Barcelona this weekend when the Spanish giants take on Real Madrid in the Clasico.
Messi, meanwhile, was satisfied with yet another Argentina win, which suggests their troubled start to qualifying which began with a shock 2-0 home defeat to Ecuador is firmly in the rear view mirror.
“Beating Bolivia and Chile is what we wanted,” said Messi, referring to last week’s hard-fought win over the Chileans in Santiago.
“We’ve come from a low position in the standings to a high one, but there is still a long way to go,” Messi added.
Messi’s Barcelona team-mate Dani Alves was the hero of Brazil’s 2-2 draw with bogey team Paraguay in Asuncion.
Paraguay looked to be on course for another famous victory to set alongside their Copa America wins over Brazil in 2011 and 2015 after taking a 2-0 lead early in the second half via goals from Dario Lezcano and Edgar Benitez.
– Stoppage time woe –
But a Ricardo Oliveira goal on 79 minutes gave Brazil a lifeline as the clock ticked down. Deep into injury time, Chelsea forward Willian fed Alves and the fullback surged into the area to curl his shot beyond Paraguay goalkeeper Justo Villar.
Brazil, missing striker Neymar and defender David Luiz through suspension, might even have grabbed a late winner at the death but Villar saved an Alves shot.
It was the second straight game that Paraguay had conceded an injury-time equaliser after Ecuador’s 2-2 draw last week.
However, manager Ramon Diaz refused to sound downbeat despite missing out on the win.
“It shows we are capable of matching these big teams,” Diaz said. “The important thing is that we are growing as a team,” added the former Argentine international.
Paraguay qualified for four consecutive World Cup tournaments between 1998 and 2010, where they reached the quarter-finals, but missed out in 2014.
Uruguay lead the standings with 13 points from six games after they followed up last Friday’s 2-2 draw in Brazil with a 1-0 victory over Peru in Montevideo on Tuesday.
Paris Saint-Germain striker Edinson Cavani scored the game’s only goal after 51 minutes.
Ecuador trail Uruguay on goal difference after being beaten 3-1 by Colombia in the port city of Barranquilla on Tuesday.
Colombia produced their best display since reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup to overwhelm the Ecuadorans. AC Milan forward Carlos Bacca scored either side of a Sebastian Perez strike to help Jose Pekerman’s team take all three points.
Colombia are now fifth in the table with 10 points from five games.
South American champions Chile meanwhile suffered an early shock in Venezuela after Romulo Otero fired the home team into an early lead.
Chile recovered, however, with two goals from Atalanta striker Mauricio Pinilla before a brace from Bayern Munich midfielder Arturo Vidal completed a 4-1 victory.