Magical Messi Sees Argentina Through to World Cup Finals
QUITTO (Reuters) - A magical Lionel Messi hattrick carried Argentina to a 3-1 win over Ecuador on Tuesday and booked their place at next year’s World Cup finals in Russia.
With Argentina facing the dire possibility of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970, their brilliant captain delivered when it matter most with three goals in the rarefied air of Quito.
The twice World Cup winners finished third in the 10-team South American group, going through with Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia as the automatic qualifiers, while Peru grabbed a playoff place against Oceania champions New Zealand at the expense of Chile.
While Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli was delighted with his captain’s performance, he said the side had to stop relying on him so much.
A World Cup without Argentina seemed an even bigger possibility when Romario Ibarra put Ecuador ahead in the opening minute after he got the better of Javier Mascherano and beat Sergio Romero with a low shot.
But Argentina, who had managed only one previous win in Quito, in 2001, equalised 11 minutes later when Messi tapped home after a one-two with Angel Di Maria.
Messi then put Argentina ahead in the 20th minute, firing a superb shot past Maximo Banguera into the top corner, and completed his hat-trick just past the hour, shaking off three tired Ecuador defenders before lifting the ball over the advancing goalkeeper and into the net.
Messi, enjoying a little bit of extra space seldom afforded against rival South American defences, joined Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, his team mate at Barcelona, as the all-time joint top scorers in CONMEBOL qualifiers with 21 goals.
Uruguay and Colombia qualified for next year’s World Cup on Tuesday after a dramatic last round of South American fixtures that also saw Peru clinch a playoff spot against New Zealand and Chile miss out completely.
Brazil were fortunate enough to escape most of the drama, having already qualified as group winners, but they still had a say in who would join them in Russia next year.
Uruguay also went behind at home to Bolivia, to an own goal from Gaston Silva after 24 minutes, but they forged ahead with two goals in each half to finish second in the 10-team group behind five-time World Cup winners Brazil.
Martin Caceres, Edinson Cavani and two Luis Suarez strikes gave the home side a commanding lead before Diego Godin’s own goal completed the scoring in a 4-2 win for the hosts.
A second-half goal from Paolo Guerrero kept Peru in with a chance of a first World Cup appearance since 1982 when his brilliant free kick in Lima cancelled out Colombia’s opener from James Rodriguez.
Peru, unbeaten in their last six qualifiers under Argentina manager Ricardo Gareca, failed to secure the win that would have ensured automatic qualification but have the consolation of a home-and-away playoff against Oceania champions New Zealand.
Five-times champions Brazil had already qualified before their game against Chile in Sao Paulo but a 3-0 home victory saw the visitors drop from third to sixth in the standings, failing to even qualify for the intercontinental playoff.