The Barcelona star netted a glorious free kick as Sabella's men took first place in World Cup qualifying, piling further misery on their underachieving neighboursArgentina maintained their perfect record in 2012 with a 3-1 victory over Paraguay on Friday night, a result that took them top of the Conmebol race to the 2014 World Cup ahead of closest challengers Chile and Ecuador.
Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and Lionel Messi were all on target for the Albiceleste in a comfortable if not entirely convincing triumph, while Paraguay's sole strike came from the penalty spot via Jonathan Fabbro.
The Argentina team came out in the Estadio Mario Kempes knowing that, thanks to Uruguay's 4-0 defeat to Colombia, a win would put them top of the World Cup qualifying standings. Inspired by Ezequiel Lavezzi, they wasted no time in taking the initiative. The Paris Saint-Germain man did well to hold up the ball on the right-hand side and his cross, after several unfortunate deflections for the Guarani, landed at the feet of Angel Di Maria who curled the ball past Justo Villar. After just two minutes, Alejandro Sabella's side were on top.
Despite the early lead, the Albiceleste were struggling against a Paraguay outfit determined to disrupt play by fair means or foul. And the visitors would find their way back into the game in bizarre circumstances. Rodrigo Brana inexplicably handled in the area from a cross under absolutely no pressure, and naturalised Argentine Jonathan Fabbro gleefully converted with class to level the game for his adopted nation.
The game continued in a disjointed fashion, as the hosts struggled to find their rhythm in the face of fierce tackling that brought 12 fouls and two bookings in the first half alone. It took another stroke of good fortune for Argentina to retake the lead.
A horribly-sliced clearance from Jonathan Ortiz fell straight into the path of Gonzalo Higuain, who was in exactly the right place to pick up the ball. The Real Madrid man still had a lot to do, but finished with aplomb across the body of Villar to restore the advantage in Cordoba. Lionel Messi almost extended the advantage with a free kick that struck the post, but despite their lead the South American giants were far from their best in the opening 45 minutes.
Messi immediately brought the Kempes crowd to full voice two minutes into the second half with an individual piece of magic that deserved a goal. The Barcelona maestro effortlessly skipped past three defenders to go one-on-one with Villar, but his chipped finish hit the post, to the groans of the local support. It was the second time the woodwork had denied 'La Pulga' as he sought to add to his eight international goals harvested so far in 2012. At the other end, Romero also had to be alert, saving low from Victor Ayala after the Lanus man tried his luck from a long-range set-piece.
After that early flurry of activity, the game settled down into a low-key rhythm. Argentina rarely looked like surrendering their lead, but despite the efforts of Lavezzi and Di Maria, who worked tirelessly, there appeared little prospect of adding to the tally. Where Lionel Messi is, however, goals are usually not too far away.
The little wizard once more found the post with a wickedly swerving free kick, but this time the ball struck the inside of the woodwork and nestled safely inside the net, taking his tally to an incredible nine in five games this year. Coming 20 minutes into the second half, the strike gave Argentina a decisive cushion as they looked to overtake Chile at the top of the table.
Victor Caceres would see a late header ruled out correctly for offside, but there was no way back for Paraguay, who slumped to their fourth qualifying defeat and remain second to bottom. Argentina recorded their third consecutive Conmebol win, and their fifth triumph in as many games this year, to go one point clear of Chile and Ecuador with a total of 13.