When it really mattered and when the pressure was most intense, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina.
On the brink of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time in almost five decades, Messi scored all three goals in Argentina’s comeback 3-1 victory Tuesday at Ecuador — overcoming the thin air in the Andes.
“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said. “This is what we came for. And on top of that we started behind. Luckily, we could react quickly and take the lead.”
“Squad will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this.”
But there’s still work to do for Argentina, the two-time champions who lost the final three years ago to Germany 1-0. Messi has yet to hoist a major trophy for his country of birth, a contrast to the laurels he’s brought Barcelona. He’ll turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, so this may be his last chance.
“Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup,” Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
The top four teams in South America get automatic spots at next year’s tournament in Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27). Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the South American spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
Two-time defending South American champion Chile needed to win to get its third straight World Cup berth, but Brazil wrecked that with a 3-0 victory. Peru’s 1-1 draw also removed any chance of Chile slipping in.
Gabriel Jesus scored twice and Paulinho got the other. It was the 12th consecutive unbeaten qualifying game since Tite has been in charge of the Brazilian team. He took over more than a year ago from Dunga.