BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -Lionel Messi failed to score for Argentina in the 2010 World Cup, and he was just as ineffective in last year's continental championship - the Copa America - where he produced another zero.
The Barcelona star faced unrelenting criticism, questions about his patriotism - he has grown up mostly in Spain - and suggestions he would never produce like Maradona.
Then suddenly, Messi began to deliver when Argentina hired Alejandro Sabella as the new national team coach just over a year ago. And he hasn't stopped.
Messi has nine goals in Argentina's last five games, and 11 since Sabella took over for Sergio Batista, who moved in after Diego Maradona was fired.
`'With Lionel we have something that no other team has," midfielder Fernando Gago said.
Backed by players like Gago - probably Argentina's best passer - and supported up front by forwards Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain and the injured Sergio Aguero, Messi has relaxed. Goals have followed.
He has 28 for Argentina - fourth on the all-time list - and is close to No. 3 Maradona's 34.
Argentina struggled to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, and then disappointed. This time the Gauchos look like the best team in South America - and one of the best in the world, having beaten Germany 3-1 last month in a friendly.
That was revenge for losing 4-0 to Germany in the World Cup quarterfinals.
All of this makes them heavy favorites on Tuesday in a qualifier at Peru.
Through six matches, the Argentines lead the South American group with 13 points, followed by Chile and Ecuador with 12, Uruguay with 11 and Colombia on 10. At the bottom are Venezuela on 8, Peru with 6 and Bolivia and Paraguay with 4.
The top four qualify automatically for the World Cup, joining Brazil as host nation. The fifth-place team faces a playoff against Asian opposition, meaning South America could wind up with six qualifiers.
In other qualifiers on Tuesday, it's Uruguay vs. Ecuador, Paraguay vs. Venezuela, and Chile vs. Colombia.
Uruguay will have top-scorer Luis Suarez back in the lineup in its home match against Ecuador. Suarez has six goals in qualifying, but was suspended from Friday's match, an embarrassing 4-0 loss against Colombia.
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez's main concern is Manchester United's attacking midfielder Luis Valencia.
"He is one of the best in the world at this position," Tabarez said.
Paraguay and Venezuela will be desperate for points.
Paraguay has qualified for four straight World Cups and reached the quarterfinals two years ago in South Africa. Venezuela is the only team in the South American confederation that has never played in the World Cup.
`'This is the first time in 17 years that we are in such bad shape," Juan Angel Napout, president of the Paraguayan Football Association, told The Associated Press. `'We put together our best players, but we're not getting good results. We still hope to improve and qualify."
Venezuela also needs the points - now.
`'We need to win," Venezuela coach Cesar Farias said. "We have a bye in the next round, and then we play Ecuador."
The Chile vs. Colombia match involves two Argentina-born coaches - Claudio Borghi at Chile and Jose Pekerman at Colombia.
Chile had a bye on Friday and will be rested against high-scoring Colombia.
`'It's going to be a tough game," Colombia defender Mario Alberto Yepes said. "Chile has been playing well in qualifying and, as if that were not enough, it had Friday off."
Associated Press reporter Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay, contributed to this report.
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