Argentina has qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia courtesy of a Lionel Messi-inspired 3-1 victory over Ecuador in Quito.
The visitors went into the final match of the campaign in sixth place and outside the qualifying positions, and the prospect of failing to qualify for the biggest stage in football for the first time since 1970 became even more real when Ecuador took the lead inside the first minute.
However, a brace from Messi turned things around by the 20th minute and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner completed his hat-trick shortly after the hour mark to put his seal on a memorable individual performance.
Things could not have started worse for Argentina on their make-or-break night when they fell behind inside the first minute, with Romario Ibarra playing a one-two before tucking his finish into the bottom corner past Sergio Romero.
From then on it was the Messi show, though, and the maestro got his first of the game after just 12 minutes when he calmly stroked Angel Di Maria’s low pass into the back of the net from inside the area.
If that finish was delicate, the second was anything but as the Barcelona man blasted an unstoppable strike into the roof of the net after latching onto the ball on the edge of the area.
The lead was enough to take Argentina into the automatic qualification places, but one more goal against would have changed that and the visitors therefore went in search of a two-goal cushion – something Di Maria almost provided when he was denied by Maximo Banguera shortly after the half-hour mark.
It was only ever going to be Messi’s name in lights, though, and the iconic number 10 saved the best for last with his hat-trick goal shortly after the hour mark, dribbling past three defenders before lifting a chipped finish over the keeper from the edge of the box.
Results elsewhere also fell kindly for Argentina, with Chile losing and Peru drawing with Colombia, ensuring that the Albiceleste end the campaign in third place having climbed three spots on the final day.