Argentina’s Messi qualification
IAN McFARLANE reflects on how one of the world’s best teams almost missed out on Russia 2018…
IN MY opinion, a catastrophe was averted in the last round of South American World Cup qualification fixtures. Argentina were on the brink of not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1970.
Enter Lionel Messi with a stunning hattrick in Ecuador, resulting in a 3-1 win, a third-place finish and a berth at the finals in Russia next summer.
I don't know what it is, but since I can remember the Argentine national team has always fascinated me, watching great players who have pulled on the famous jersey over the years.
I have a diverse love of football so some names on this list may seem a little obscure to some, but the likes of Veron, Batistuta, Crespo, Tevez, Riquelme, Palermo, Pochettino, Vivas, Heinze, Demichelis and, from yesteryear, the great Di Stefano, Kempes and Maradona have always intensely held my interest.
This still rings true to the current squad. Aside from Messi, you also have Mascherano, Rojo, Roncaglia, Biglia, Mercado, Di Maria, Aguero, Gaitan and Bernadetto to carry on the legacy.
Despite the quality of players at their disposal, Argentina struggled in the qualifying campaign, which began in 2015.
Off pitch issues during this period were a hindrance as well. Indeed, Messi even retired from international duty after a second successive Copa America final defeat to Chile on penalties in summer 2016 - luckily, he would change his mind shortly after.
Managerial turnaround was another issue, with Jorge Sampaoli becoming their fourth coach since the World Cup final in 2014.
There was also a player-imposed media ban, after it was rumoured that Ezequiel Lavezzi had smoked marijuana at a training session.
Argentina’s qualifying campaign didn’t get off to a good start – they began with a defeat (2-0 at home against Ecuador) and two draws (0-0 in Paraguay and 1-1 at home versus Brazil).
They were up and running with a 1-0 win in Colombia with Biglia on target. This started a run of four consecutive victories (they also beat Chile (a), Bolivia (h) and Uruguay (h)).
This led people – including myself – to believe that, like Brazil, the shaky start was over with and it was now full steam ahead.
This was the case with Brazil, who finished the campaign a whopping ten points above second-placed Uruguay and were the first to qualify for the World Cup.
Argentina would, however, continually falter - draws in Venezuela and Peru, losing at home to Paraguay and getting battered 3-0 in Brazil.
Harmony seemed to be restored after that with a comprehensive 3-0 victory over Colombia, with Messi, Pratto and Di Maria all on the scoresheet.
A Messi penalty sank Chile, though the bigger story of that game was the 30-yearold picking up a four-match ban for his treatment of an official. This was appealed and he only missed one game. The match he sat out was a 2-0 loss to Bolivia at altitude.
Three draws would follow with just one goal scored, that being an own goal by Feltscher in the 1-1 home draw against Venezuela.
The penultimate qualifier in Buenos Aires against Peru featured a ridiculous number of missed chances. Bernadetto, Messi, Di Maria and others just could not breach Peru's resistance in a 0-0 draw.
After two years, it came down to a trip to Ecuador and nothing less than a win would realistically do.
With Brazil already qualified, six sides still had a chance of the other three automatic spots as well as the play-off spot for finishing fifth going into the final fixtures.
Fear must have filled most Argentinians when their side fell behind in the first minute. But Messi pulled out his stupendous hat-trick on a night in which he carried the hopes and dreams of a nation on his shoulders with consummate ease.
Messi's goals, link-up play and desire eventually helped Argentina secure their place alongside the cream.
In the last World Cup in Brazil, Argentina were beaten finalists after extra-time against Germany.
Maybe from a strange psychological viewpoint, this awkward qualifying campaign, with all the off-field shenanigans, is what the national side needed. Proving they can cope with mounting adversity and expectation is a good test of character for a side entering the World Cup next summer.
Is this going to lead to a pragmatic-based Argentina holding aloft the famous trophy? Only time will tell.
With Messi already a true legend of the beautiful game and this possibly being his last World Cup, it would be quite fitting if this did transpire.
Ian Mc Farlane is Peterborough Uni ted' s correspondent on d3 d4 football.com
Star of the show: Argentina talisman Lionel Messi