Messi magic as Argentina down Colombia

SAN JUAN, Argentina: Lionel Messi scored a majestic free-kick and set up two more goals as Argentina got their faltering 2018 World Cup qualification campaign back on track with a 3-0 win over Colombia here Tuesday.

Barcelona maestro Messi curled in a superb free-kick from 30 yards in the 10th minute before providing the cross for Lucas Pratto's 23rd minute header.

The tireless Messi then popped up in the 84th minute to set up Angel Di Maria's late goal as Argentina secured all three points.

The two-time world champions had taken just two points from their previous four games to leave themselves languishing just outside the qualification berths in South America's marathon qualifying tournament.

But Tuesday's victory puts Argentina back into the qualification positions in fifth place with six games remaining.

Beaten 3-0 by Brazil last week, Messi and his team-mates came out determined to prevent Colombia from registering their first win on Argentine soil since 1993.

Messi almost served up an opening goal after only six minutes, his perfectly flighted free-kick finding Manchester City defender Nicolas Otamendi whose diving header went just over the bar.

Colombia hit back almost immediately with Radamel Falcao's header from a Juan Cuadrado cross going just over the bar before Wilmar Barrios saw his shot from outside the area blocked.

But a boisterous Argentine crowd at San Juan's Estadio del Bicentenario did not have long to wait for the opening goal.

A jinking Messi run ended with the Argentina captain being clumsily upended by Barrios around 30 yards from goal.

Messi, who scored two free-kicks from a similar distance in the Copa America Centenario in June, had no hesitation in stepping up once again and his spectacular whipping effort crashed in off the underside of the bar with David Ospina beaten. It was Messi's 57th goal in his 116th game, giving him an average strike rate of just a fraction under a goal every two games.

Colombia responded with another headed effort from Falcao that went just over in the 19th minute.

But four minutes later Messi was to the fore again. A darting run on the right took him clear of the hapless Barrios, and his pinpoint cross picked out Pratto who calmly steered his header wide of Ospina for 2-0.

The result was never in doubt thereafter, and Messi engineered his team's final goal with six minutes left, surging down the right flank and squaring for Di Maria who shot into the roof of the net. — AFP