| Argentina’s Lionel Messi tries to make his way past Peru’s Rinaldo Cruzado (centre) and Josemir Ballon, in Lima, on Tuesday. (AFP)
Buenos Aires: Lionel Messi’s recent goal spree came to an abrupt halt in Argentina’s uninspiring 1-1 draw against Peru as Colombia came out on top in the latest round of South American World Cup qualifiers that concluded on Tuesday.
Argentina lead the nine-nation group ahead of Colombia and Ecuador but only three points separate the top six teams with the series set to reach its halfway mark next month.
Peru laid bare the failings in Argentina’s rearguard that their brilliant forwards often disguise in tricky conditions at the Estadio Nacional in Lima.
Gonzalo Higuain’s fine equaliser was one of the few Argentina highlights in a performance that also featured Sergio Romero’s early penalty save from Claudio Pizarro.
Messi was almost unrecognisable as the world’s best player, softened by a series of early fouls but not subjected to the aggressive man-marking Diego Maradona endured in a 1-0 defeat in the Peru capital 27 years ago.
He was kept in check by Peru’s heavily populated midfield, which still found space to carry danger to Argentina with defender Carlos Zambrano scoring in the 22nd minute and Luis Ramirez hitting the post in the second half.
“The pitch didn’t help, you needed one or two touches more to control the ball. We left the pitch angry because we couldn’t play our game but an away draw is good,” Messi, who had scored 10 goals in his last six internationals, told reporters.
“We’re bitter at having only seven points when we deserve a few more,” said Peru’s Uruguayan coach Sergio Markarian, who is attempting lead the team to the finals for the first time since 1982.
“Peru didn’t surprise me. Nowadays, it’s always tough, always very even,” Argentina coach Alejandro Sabella of the result and the tight standings.
Argentina have 14 points, Colombia and Ecuador 13, Uruguay and Chile 12 and Venezuela, looking to reach their first finals, 11.
At the end of the marathon campaign, the top four will qualify for the 2014 finals and the fifth-placed team play off against an Asian nation for a berth in Brazil.
Colombia, with strikers Radamel Falcao and Teo Gutierrez scoring three goals apiece in two matches, followed their 4-0 rout of Uruguay on Friday with Tuesday’s 3-1 away victory over an accomplished Chile side in Santiago.
“The team were confident despite falling behind in the first half,” Colombia coach Jose Pekerman said.
“This confidence has been very positive for us and confirms the team has potential. This is one of the hardest matches you'll get in the qualifiers.”
Charged with putting Colombia back on track after a poor start by his sacked predecessor Leonel Alvarez, the Argentine said the key had been to spend the Fifa international date in August practising rather than playing a friendly.
“This double (qualifying) fixture has helped us a lot and I think we’re now enjoying the fruits of our work but it was painful when (critics) didn’t understand our work,” he said.
Ecuador, trained by former Honduras World Cup coach Reinaldo Rueda, picked up a good point with a 1-1 draw at Uruguay, who were thrashed by Colombia in Barranquilla on Friday.
“Uruguay had come from a tough time and were going to put their best on the pitch, but we were orderly, made the most of the lead Felipe Caicedo’s eighth-minute penalty and had good control of the game in the first half,” Rueda said.
His opposite number Oscar Tabarez, whose side equalised through Edinson Cavani, said: “We recovered the intensity customary in this team’s game.
“We’re going through a lean spell and we’ll see how we overcome it in a month’s time.
“This is a long haul. There are teams who were far behind and have recovered in the last two fixtures. I think we can also do that in the coming matches.”
The team that came off worst were Paraguay, accustomed to doing well enough to have reached four successive finals but now rooted to the bottom of the standings after losing to Argentina and then 2-0 to Venezuela in Asuncion on Tuesday.