At high altitude and amid even higher stakes, Lionel Messi produced a stunning individual display to drag Argentina from the brink of humiliation to the World Cup finals in Russia.
After only 38 seconds in Quito on Tuesday, Jorge Sampaoli’s side were on their knees – a goal down and with the prospect of missing football’s flagship tournament for the first time since 1970 growing with every second.
But in Messi, they have the small man for the very biggest occasion. For years the Barcelona forward has been plagued by accusations that his legacy will be dented if he fails to land a World Cup medal. On the back of this qualifying campaign, that looks further away than ever.
Lionel Messi netted an incredible hat-trick to help Argentina come from behind in Ecuador and qualify for the 2018 World Cup
The Barcelona forward netted twice in eight first-half minutes as Jorge Sampaoli’s side turned the game on its head in Quito
Romario Ibarra put Ecuador in front after only 38 seconds in Quito after Argentina failed to deal with a simple long ball
The home side celebrate their opening goal in front of the Argentina bench. Their lead was short-lived in a dramatic first-half
Messi levelled the scores after 12 minutes following a neat-one two with former Manchester United star Angel Di Maria
MATCH DETAILS AND QUALIFICATION TABLES
Ecuador (4-1-4-1): Banguera; Velasco, Aimar Alvarez, Arboleda, Ramirez; Orejuela; Ibarra, Intriago (Uchuari 77), Cevallos (Valencia 41), Ibrarra Mina; Ordonez Ayovi (Estrada Martinez 64)
Subs not used: Arreaga, Garces, Johnson Mina, Lopez, Murillo, Ortiz, Piedra, Plata
Goals: Ibarra Mina 1
Yellow cards: Cevallos 14
Argentina (3-4-3): Romero; Mercado, Mascherano, Otamendi; Salvio, Perez, Biglia, Acuna; Messi, Benedetto (Icardi 77), Di Maria (Paredes 84)
Subs not used: Banega, Dybala, Fazio, Gomez, Guzman, Mammana, Marchesin, Perez, Pezzella, Rigoni
Goals: Messi 12, 20, 62
Yellow cards: Acuna 51, Biglia 61, Mascherano 86
Referee: Anderson Daronco (Brazil)
But three decades on from Diego Maradona’s heroics at Mexico 1986, the heir to his crown produced a messianic display to rival anything their nation has ever seen.
After Romario Ibarra had put Ecuador into a first-minute lead, captain Messi rescued his side with his fifth — and most vital — international hat-trick. The forward netted twice in eight first-half minutes to turn the game on its head before a wonderful chip after the break secured the victory and their plane ticket to Russia.
Heading into the Quito clash, the situation for Sampaoli’s side could hardly have been more complex, yet so simple.
Before Tuesday’s final round of matches, Brazil were the only South American side to have secured qualification. Behind them six sides — separated by only four points — all held lingering hopes of qualifying for next year’s finals.
The Barcelona forward instantly grabbed the ball as he led the fightback for Jorge Sampaoli’s side when they needed it most
On 20 minutes, Messi had turned the game on its head, firing home from the edge of the box to put Argentina 2-1 up
Di Maria and Marco Acuna celebrate with the forward after he put them back on track to qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Argentina began the night in sixth, their fate in their own hands. Messi and Co knew that only a win could guarantee a play-off spot, but even defeat could still be enough.
Within a minute in Quito, it appeared that may be their best hope. Little more than 30 seconds had passed when the visitors failed to deal with a simple long ball and paid the ultimate price.
After the ball made its way to Ibarra, the 23-year-old exchanged headers with striker Roberto Ordonez Ayovi, before firing past Sergio Romero from close range to score his second international goal in as many caps.
Argentina were shell-shocked. For Ecuador, there was pride and points to play for – everything but qualification on the line. They appeared liberated by the lack of pressure. The visitors, meanwhile, looked to be crumbling in its wake.
Messi picked up his 44th career hat-trick with a sublime chip from the edge of the penalty area just after the hour mark
The Barcelona forward points to the sky after scoring the goal that secured his side’s qualification for next year’s World Cup
Ecuador’s goalscorer Ibarra tries to hold off the attention of Argentina defender Gabriel Mercado during the first half in Quito
All except Messi, at least. On 12 minutes, the Barcelona forward hauled his side level, playing a neat one-two with Angel Di Maria before finishing coolly past Maximo Banguera.
And only eight minutes later the comeback was complete. Messi nicked the ball off Ecuador defender Dario Aimar Alvarez just outside the box before smashing the ball into the top left hand corner.
If Aimar Alvarez had provided a helping hand for the second, the third, which came shortly after the hour mark, was all Messi. Having picked the ball up outside the box, the forward skipped past Robert Arboleda and secured his 44th career hat-trick with a sublime chip from the edge of the box.
In 89 breathless minutes in the Andean foothills Messi had lifted Argentina from elimination to automatic qualification. And following Colombia’s draw with Peru and Brazil’s victory over Chile, Argentina had somehow finished a forgettable South American qualifying campaign in third. The great escape was complete. Next stop, Russia.
Ecuador left back Cristian Ramirez leaps over the challenge of former West Ham and Liverpool star Javier Mascherano
Eduardo Salvio battles for possession with Ibarra as the home side looked to end the visitors’ hopes of World Cup qualification
Messi is engulfed by the Argentina squad after his hat-trick took them up to third in the South American qualifying group
The Barcelona forward and Argentina skipper salutes the travelling support following the 3-1 victory over Ecuador