Ecuador 1-3 Argentina: Lionel Messi hat-trick secures World Cup place
By Daniel J. McLaughlin
Argentina needed a day of remarkable turnarounds to avoid the humiliation of missing out on the first World Cup finals for the first time since 1970. At the start of their clash with Ecuador, the 2014 World Cup runners-up were in sixth place in their group, requiring a top-four finish to qualify for the tournament in Russia next year. They needed to call upon the magic of Lionel Messi to make sure they achieved this.
It was, however, a moment of magic from the home side in the Ecuadorian capital that looked like this dream was going to be put in doubt. Argentina fell behind after just 38 seconds, courtesy of excellent teamwork between Renato Ibarra and Roberto Ordonez Ayovi. With the ball making its way to Ibarra, the 23-year-old winger exchanged headers with Ordonez before he received the ball again in the box, and shot it low past Sergio Romero.
The shell-shocked La Albiceleste looked to Messi for a response, and the Barcelona forward was on hand to deliver exactly that 10 minutes later. After feeding the ball to Angel Di Maria on the left, playing a lovely one-two, the five-time world player of the year coolly slotted it past Maximo Banguera.
The Argentina captain doubled their lead just eight minutes later. He robbed the ball from defender Dario Aimar Alvarez just outside the box, making his way into the box before smashing a strike into the top corner, leaving the goalkeeper stunned – no world class keeper could have stopped that ball from reaching its target.
Messi capped off his stunning display with a solo effort to earn his hat-trick just after the hour mark. Chesting the ball down halfway into the Ecuador half, he rushed forward, skipping past Robert Arboleda, and hitting a superb chip from the edge of the box catching the goalkeeper off-guard, securing both Argentina's qualification and his 44th career hat-trick.
Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli was full of praise for his captain, saluting the performance that lifted his side up to third in the group and into an automatic qualification spot.
He said: "Luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian.
"We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo [Messi] but today he brought his great ability.
"I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi. We should help him be in the World Cup."
Argentina will play Russia next on Friday, November 10 with details still to be confirmed about the friendly game.