Fighting back the tears with a look of utter despair etched on his face it looked as though the heartbreak of three cup final defeats would be the lasting memory of Lionel Messi’s international career. For his critics, this stain on his record was enough to prevent any talk of being the greatest player of all-time and while nothing has changed in that respect, the Argentina captain produced one of his greatest performances to send La Albiceleste to the World Cup.
‘Not even Messi can save Argentina’ were the words in the Argentinian press after another solo performance against Peru failed to generate the goals and the points required from Peru’s visit to Buenos Aires last week.
A trip to the altitude of Quito, where only Marcelo Bielsa’s record-breaking qualifiers could win since 1996, stood between Argentina and a place in Russia. A nation hoped and prayed for a miracle and Lionel Messi answered with an exquisite hat-trick.
But it wasn’t plain sailing and when Ecuador led after 40 seconds through Romario Ibarra, many supporters could have been excused for thinking the dream was over.
Messi had other ideas and immediately had his side responding positively. The number ten and old ally Ángel Di María led the attack and had already gone close when the pair combined for Messi to slide in a 12th minute equaliser.
Boosted by the goal, Argentina smelled blood and the inspirational Messi continued to threaten the Ecuador defence so it was no real surprise when he burst through on his left boot to smash the ball into the top corner.
Argentina were in dreamland and as long as they were ahead it didn’t matter what was happening elsewhere.
As long as the lead was only a goal that wasn’t certain, particularly given the nervy defence but on the hour mark, Messi produced the crowning moment of his performance. Skipping away from two challenges, the world’s best player was falling to turf when he managed to get his shot away and lob Maximo Banguera for his and Argentina’s third.
An awful qualification comes to close with a place at the World Cup guaranteed and while it isn’t the trophy that critics demand of Lionel Messi, it was the individual brilliance of one player that dragged Argentina to Russia.