All the stress, all the misses and all the dropped points came down to Tuesday night in Quito and when Argentina needed a performance they got one from their captain. Argentina had last won in the altitude of Ecuador in 1996 under very different circumstances but Lionel Messi inspired La Albiceleste to victory and with it secured a place at next summer’s World Cup.
Sergio Romero – 6
After the nightmare start of having to pick the ball out of his net with 40 seconds on the clock, Sergio Romero recovered well enough in what was a tense game behind a nervy defence. The little that Chiquito needed to do, he did with relative ease.
Gabriel Mercado – 5
Caught napping for Ecuador’s swift opening goal, Gabriel Mercado made a dreadful start to the game. The back three recovered as the match progressed and they settled the nerves but it was far from the Sevilla man’s best in an Argentina shirt.
Javier Mascherano – 5
Badly at fault for Ecuador’s opener, Javier Mascherano appeared to be exposed in his central defensive role and while there were a few more anxious moments during the first half, El Jefecito provided his usual full-blooded, leader’s performance. One final battle in Russia for the old general and for now remains an important part of Sampaoli’s set up.
Nicolás Otamendi – 7
Certainly the pick of the back three, Nicolás Otamendi’s aggressive, no nonsense defending got Argentina out of a couple of potentially dangerous situations and despite people previously having reservations about the Manchester City defender, he has proved himself a reliable asset for Sampaoli. Mascherano and Acuña benefitted from having his physical presence alongside.
Eduardo Salvio – 4
One of the changes to Jorge Sampaoli’s starting eleven, Eduardo Salvio didn’t really do enough to suggest that he has locked down a place on the right. Without contributing too much offensively, Toto seemed caught between his responsibilites and in the first half didn’t really support Gabriel Mercado either. The Benfica winger will need more time to adjust to this new role.
Enzo Pérez – 8
Many would have questioned Enzo Pérez’s place in the starting eleven but the River Plate midfielder was outstanding in Sampaoli’s engine room. Obviously picked for his workrate, efficiency with the ball and box-to-box ability, Enzo didn’t disappoint. Even after the shocking start, Pérez was calm, was always an option and importantly linked with Messi well. A tremendous burst forward and pass almost created a late goal for Mauro Icardi.
Lucas Biglia – 6.5
Understated and probably undervalued as a result, Lucas Biglia went about his job effectively in Quito. While those around him always take the headlines, Biglia does all the ugly work in midfield and despite the difficult conditions, worked tirelessly to win back possession and protect the ball.
Marcos Acuña – 5
Understandably perhaps these two qualifiers haven’t produced the best of Marcos Acuña given Sampaoli asking him to play a far more defensively disciplined role to his natural game. El Huevo’s attacking instincts were therefore limited and there obvious questions whether he is a long-term fix to the left sided full back problem.
Lionel Messi – 11
There are not enough superlatives to describe Lionel Messi but in a career of remarkable performances, this will be remembered through the ages. The captain has continuously had to answer his critics at international level and after dragging Argentina to the point where qualification was still in their own hands on Tuesday, Messi finished the job with a sensational hat-trick.
Ángel Di María – 8
Taken off at half time against Peru, Ángel Di María didn’t even look fit and after a number of frustrating displays many thought it was time for El Fideo to step aside. However, in the oxygen-starved environment of Quito, the indefatigable Di María proved his worth yet again. Linking with Messi superbly in the first half, the Paris Saint-Germain winger laid on the equaliser but was a constant threat down the left.
Darío Benedetto – 6.5
After his couple of misses against Peru, Darío Benedetto was given another opportunity in Quito and while his first Argentina goal didn’t follow it was a industrious performance from the Boca Juniors striker. Benedetto battled for everything, contributed to play and gave it his all before his late substitution.
Mauro Icardi – 6
Fifteen minutes at the end for Mauro Icardi and almost a goal. The Inter captain latched onto Enzo Pérez’s pass and tried to round Máximo Banguera only for the goalkeeper to smother it
Leandro Paredes – A late replacement for Di María, there wasn’t enough time for Leandro Paredes to make any kind of impression.
Federico Fazio – On for Eduardo Salvio in stoppage time, Federico Fazio just helped to run the clock down.