Messi single-handedly resurrected Argentina’s hopes in a 3-1 win over Ecuador in Quito that drew a line under a chaotic campaign that had left the two-time champions in danger of failing to qualify.
The Barcelona superstar scored twice inside the opening 20 minutes to give Argentina the lead after Ecuador had stunned the visitors with an opening goal after from Romario Ibarra after 38 seconds.
Messi then completed his hat-trick — the 44th of his dazzling career — with a sublime chip in the second half to seal the victory.
The Argentinian superstar can now look forward to his fourth appearance at the World Cup at next year’s finals in Russia, where he will attempt once more to lead his country to an elusive major title.
Since his country’s defeat to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final, Messi has twice suffered agony at major tournaments with Argentina, losing the finals of both the 2015 Copa America and the 2016 Copa America Centenario.
Messi, who will turn 31 during next year’s World Cup, now has one, perhaps final, chance to emulate his idol Diego Maradona by lifting the World Cup.
Relieved Argentina manager Jorge Sampaoli — the third coach appointed during the qualifying campaign — could not avoid expressing his gratitude to Messi following Tuesday’s win.
“Messi doesn’t owe a World Cup to Argentina — football owes a World Cup to Messi,” Sampaoli said.
“He’s the best player in history. This is a team victory. They played a brilliant match.”