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Argentina held by Colombia, Chile wins

Lionel Messi (L) of Argentina tries to dribbles the ball under pressure from Aldo Ramirez of Colombia during their 2014 World Cup qualifying
Lionel Messi (L) of Argentina tries to dribbles the ball under pressure from Aldo Ramirez of Colombia during their 2014 World Cup qualifying

By Rex Gowar

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Colombia climbed into second place in South America's World Cup qualifying group after holding leaders Argentina 0-0 on Friday, while Chile did its chances of reaching the finals no harm with a win in Paraguay.

Colombia's goal difference puts them above Ecuador, who lost 1-0 to Peru in Lima, while Chile hold fourth spot after beating Paraguay 2-1.

Venezuela clung to fifth despite giving away a late equalizer for a 1-1 draw against Bolivia at high altitude in La Paz.

South American champions Uruguay, who had a bye for this round of matches, dropped to seventh below Peru and visit Venezuela on Tuesday in desperate need of a win.

Argentina, starting without Lionel Messi, and Colombia served up a feast of attacking football at the Monumental in Buenos Aires with chances galore early on, but two red cards before half an hour was up changed the complexion of the game.

The dismissal of Gonzalo Higuain and Cristian Zapata for kicking out at each other affected Argentina more, leaving them without a striker in red hot form who almost scored two goals while he was on the pitch.

Higuain's suspension and doubts over Messi's match fitness could mean Argentina start away to Ecuador on Tuesday without their top scorers, who have 17 goals between them.

Messi, just back from a hamstring injury and lacking match fitness, rarely looked comfortable after coming on with little more than half an hour left.

Asked whether he would play against Ecuador, the Argentina captain told reporters: "I don't know, I had gone a long time without a game. Playing at altitude is exhausting."

Messi no doubt recalled his struggle in the thin air of La Paz in Argentina's 1-1 draw with Bolivia in March and his team will have to contend with similar conditions in Quito.

FIVE-POINT LEAD

Argentina have a five-point cushion at the top of the nine-nation South American group with Colombia and Ecuador both on 20 points and Chile 18.

The top four teams at the end of the qualifiers in October will go through to the Brazil finals. The fifth-placed team, at present Venezuela with 16 points, will enter a playoff against an Asian qualifier in November for another berth.

Venezuela were four minutes away from victory over Bolivia before a mistake by goalkeeper Renny Vega at a corner allowed substitute Jhasmany Campos to head an equalizer.

The dropped points dent Venezuela's aspirations of reaching the finals for the first time but coach Cesar Farias looked on the bright side.

"To take a point in La Paz is very good and it could be the point that takes us to the World Cup," Farias told the post-match news conference.

"Up here (in La Paz) few teams take points with them. Of our direct rivals only Chile got three… but the point is much better for us than for Bolivia."

Chile's victory at the Defensores del Chaco in Asuncion virtually ended Paraguay's chances of reaching Brazil.

"It's the hardest and saddest moment of our careers, because we've spent a life in the national team and to finish like this is tough," said veteran Paraguay striker Roque Santa Cruz.

Paraguay fans clamored for Gerardo Pelusso, the team's second coach during the qualifiers, to be sacked.

Peru coach Sergio Markarian, on the other hand, was a happy man after his team's victory in Lima while recognizing that reaching the finals is still only a dream.

"We're taking the victory calmly, today we're still out of the World Cup. This win sets us up for the fight without promising anything," Markarian said.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Quiroga in La Paz, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion and Marco Aquino in Lima; Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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