Cometh the hour, cometh the man

Argentina made a trip to Ecuador for their final World Cup qualifying campaign knowing they are in danger of missing out on the world’s biggest football event for only the second time since 1970. The situation looked unpromising, especially after three successive draws in the campaign. Only a victory would keep Argentina alive, with automatic qualification out of reach, that too depending on the other results of the final night of South American World Cup qualifiers.

It would be an understatement to say the odds were heavily stacked against the two world time champions and last edition’s finalists. Since November 2016, no Argentine player has scored from open play. They had scored only one goal in the last four qualifying games, and only 16 in 17 qualifiers going into the final match. More over, playing at the Ecuadorian capital at an altitude of 2,850m was a vastly different proposition. Few teams have found going easy at of Quito, and Argentina haven’t won there since 2001.

But on the wee hours of Wednesday, when it mattered the most, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina, in quite some style. Riding on the Barcelona superstar’s 44th career hat-trick — by far the most important one so far — Argentina rallied to rout Ecuador 3-1 for a place in next year’s Fifa World Cup, to be hosted by Russia.

After the final round, Uruguay, Argentina and Columbia joined the already qualified Brazil to complete the top four automatic qualifying positions from the region. Chile missed the bus, while Peru at number five will play the play-off for a place in the WC.

In Quito, the Albicelestes got off to a horrid start with Ecuador taking the lead inside the very first minute. But Messi was in mood to relent. In the 12th minute, the Argentina skipper scored off a pass from Di Maria, netting home from close range. In the 20th minute, Di Maria slipped a pass through to Messi, who slotted the ball into the top corner from 15 yards. Messi got his third in the 62nd minute, driving in a perfect 18-yard shot to ensure that football’s biggest show features the game’s greatest star.

Aritra Mukhopadhyay