Cometh the hour, cometh the man. When his Country needed him most, Lionel Messi obliged as Argentina book their place at the 2018 World Cup.
The Barcelona superstar literally put his country on his back, scoring a brilliant hat trick in Ecuador to clinch a direct spot to next summer’s tournament with a 3-1 victory.
The two-time World Cup winners and 2014 runners-up were in real danger of missing the tournament for just the second time in their history.
Needing a win against Ecuador, Argentina conceded the fastest goal they ever have when Romario Ibarra gave the host the lead after just 38 seconds.
In the high-altitude Ecuadorian capital of Quito, Messi played a clever one-two with Angel di Maria before sweeping home from close range with 12 minutes on the clock to make it 1-1.
- The five-time world player of the year’s second goal came eight minutes later with a powerful strike from the edge of the area before a fine solo goal in the second half sealed the victory and Argentina’s passage to Russia.
Messi completed his hat-trick on the hour mark with an exquisite chip to seal his spot in Russia next year.
Sampaoli salutes Lionel Messi heroics
Meanwhile, Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli saluted Lionel Messi brilliance against Ecuador.
Sampaoli said: “They won the game with authority. (The opposition) scored a goal and we did not despair.
“Today luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian.
“We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo but today he showed his great ability.
“I told the group ‘Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi’.
“Football, the World Cup, could not be left (the same) without Messi. We had to play with that in mind.
”As a consequence of that pressure we are stronger now, this qualification will make us stronger to face the future.
“We had the possibility to help him to be in another World Cup. He is the best player in the history of soccer and I’m very excited to be in a group near him.”
Brazil beat Chile thanks to goals from Paulinho and Gabriel Jesus (2) to finish first and squash their World Cup hopes.
Alexis Sanchez and Co will not be going to Russia after sliding down to sixth place in the final standings.
Chile have won the Copa America on the last two occasions, but became one of the best football nations to miss out on a trip to Russia.
Uruguay joined Brazil, Argentina and Colombia in sealing their World Cup spot thanks to a 4-2 win over Bolivia in Montevideo.
Jose Paolo Guerrero scored a 76th-minute equaliser for Peru against Colombia, and they will face New Zealand in a two-legged play-off next month.
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