Argentina’s 3-1 triumph over Ecuador that sealed qualification was tense, scrappy, and more than a bit fortunate. But ultimately their magnificent captain put in the display 43 million people were waiting for to drag them kicking and screaming into the 2018 World Cup.
With another result it may even have proved Leo’s final game with the national team – it would at least have been difficult to imagine him soldiering on for another five years for another crack at the apple in Qatar.
The result itself was anything but a foregone conclusion. Aficionados of ominous statistics oft repeated in the build-up to the game that Argentina had won just once in the heights of Quito, the altitude of the Ecuadorian capital proving a daunting barrier to success over the years.
And only a win would guarantee the Albiceleste at least a spot in the play-off, with automatic qualification out of their hands and depending on results elsewhere on a frenetic night of South American action.
Another less than encouraging statistic also weighed heavy on Argentine minds. Not since November 2016 had one of their players manage to score from open play, a fact almost incomputable when set against the rich attacking talent the nation is capable of fielding. Messi himself had netted the last goal from someone in an Argentina shirt way back in March, a rather soft penalty against Chile.
But the Barcelona magician cocked his thumb at those heavy omens and instead put in a match-winning performance to down chaotic yet brave Ecuador.
At first, it appeared that disaster was set to strike. Just 39 seconds into the encounter the hosts took advantage of some atrocious defending to go ahead through Romario Ibarra. It was precisely the start Jorge Sampaoli must have wished to avoid, forcing Argentina to push even further forward in Quito’s paper-thin atmosphere to seek parity and then superiority.
Luckily Messi was on the field to put things right – and this time, in a welcome change, he was not alone. So often left a forlorn, frustrated figure shorn of company in international colours, the neat pass received from Angel Di Maria 12 minutes into the clash must have felt like manna from heaven. He made no mistake, sliding home past Maximo Banguera to level the score and keep the World Cup dream alive.
The second was testament to his perseverance and commitment to the Argentina cause. Chasing up a loose ball, he powered past his marker and powered the ball into the net from an uncomfortable angle for 2-1. And the third of the evening, to mark the 44th perhaps the most important hat-trick of his entire career, was pure unadulterated inspiration. Banguera was left stranded by a lob that came out of nowhere, the mark of a true genius coming through when it really counted.
No wonder that even the home fans were reduced to applauding their executioner, a scene of graciousness in defeat seldom-seen in hyper-competitive South America and a mark of the effect Messi has on his rivals.
It was not quite Messi against the world in Quito. Di Maria veered in and out of the game as is his wont, but came up with that neat one-two to grab a vital equaliser. Enzo Perez formed the link between midfield and attack so sorely lacking in recent outings, while wide out on the right Eduardo Salvio put in a workmanlike performance to keep an adventurous Ecuador at bay and push his team forward on the counter.
Nor will it escape an immensely relieved Sampaoli that their opponents on Tuesday, having nothing to lose after early elimination, attacked and left spaces in a way that few other adversaries will come Russia 2018.
When it counted the captain shouted loudest, however, and dragged his team into a World Cup after 18 games of under-achieving, sub-standard performances and bedlam behind the scenes.
Sampaoli will certainly be under no illusions as to the task ahead of him in whipping this team into shape, after so many years of mis-management. But at least he can do so knowing that catastrophe has been averted and his nation are on their way to Russia and for that he has one man to thank above all others.
Argentina’s messiah arrived to save the day, and when he is at his incomparable best the Albiceleste should never be written off.