Mag­i­cal Messi Sees Ar­gentina Through to World Cup Fi­nals

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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.

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