The odds against Argentina adding a third World Cup to those of 1978 and 1986 shortened yesterday as they moved to the brink of the knockout stage by shrugging off South Korea's unexpectedly physical challenge. Bookmakers around the world were as impressed as everyone else with Diego Maradona's side, for whom Lionel Messi turned in another irresistible performance and Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain recorded the tournament's first hat-trick.
That treble, following on from the gift of an early own goal, enabled them to do what they had not managed in the opening game against Nigeria – won only 1-0 – by reflecting obvious superiority in the scoreline. In World Cups, the race is rarely to be the first out of the blocks, but Maradona's formidable squad have looked the best side so far and will take some catching.
Following his rants the previous day at Pele, Michel Platini et al, the manager was in good-humoured mood and even apologised to the Uefa president. There was a hint of modesty, too, when he said of his coaching: "If you have a sensational team, it is easy."
So it was, for most of the match. There was only one brief period of doubt, after a moment's dreaming by centre-back Martin Demichelis allowed the Koreans to pull back to 2-1 just before half-time with a goal by Bolton's Lee Chung-yong. The Asian side might even have equalised, Lee setting up Yeom Ki-hun, who shot weakly. Shortly afterwards, Maradona, who is gaining serious credibility as a coach, sent on his son-in-law Sergio Aguero to help create two goals in three minutes and the game was won. Attempting to crowd Messi out proved futile for the Koreans as he either drifted away from his guards or used the space left to feed his team-mates. Fouling him was equally counter-productive, as every free-kick near goal was a threat, producing the first two goals. There was one glorious cameo that recalled the famous photograph of Maradona in the 1986 World Cup semi-final, surrounded by half a dozen Belgian defenders. Here Messi took on five players before curling his shot just wide, narrowly missing out on the goal of the tournament.
Leaving out Juan Sebastian Veron, who had a niggling injury, turned out to be no hardship, as bringing in Liverpool's Maxi Rodriguez offered added width on one side, while Angel di Maria stretched the opposition on the other. The Koreans had collected a first booking for a foul on Messi in the opening ten minutes and another free-kick soon afterwards brought the first goal. Messi swung the ball over and it bounced in off the unfortunate Park Chu-young.
For their next trick – and free-kick – Messi gave a short pass to Carlos Tevez, whose thunderous shot must have dropped below the bar with a more orthodox ball. Another foul, this time on Tevez, and Maxi Rodriguez flicked on for Higuain to head in, just onside.
The crowd were still gasping at Messi's jinking run and shot when a lapse of concentration by Demichelis allowed Lee through to halve the lead. Briefly, Argentina looked troubled, Jonas Gutierrez collecting the booking that keeps him out of the final group match, and Yeom missing badly. But Aguero arrived to send Messi in for a shot against the post, Higuain tapping in the rebound and then completing his hat-trick with a header from Aguero's cross.
Argentina (4-3-1-2): Romero; Gutierrez, Demichelis, Samuel (Burdisso,23), Heinze; Maxi Rodriguez, Mascherano, Di Maria; Messi; Higuain (Bolatti, 82), Tevez (Aguero, 75).
South Korea (4-2-3-1): Jung; Oh, Cho, J-s Lee, Y-p Lee; Ki (N-i Kim, h-t), Kim; C-y Lee, J-s Park, Yeom; C-y Park (D-g Lee, 81).
Referee F de Bleeckere (Belgium).