Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
Lionel Messi was the hero for Argentina on Tuesday evening in Ecuador as he scored a sensational hat-trick to book his nation a spot at next summer’s World Cup in Russia in a 3-1 win over Ecuador.
Argentina had looked in trouble early on in Quito as Ecuador scored with their first attack of the game inside the first minute, Romario Ibarra netting from a long ball after some horrendous defending from the visitors.
The lead didn’t last long though as Messi equalised just 11 minutes later, feeding Angel di Maria before tucking away the PSG’s wingers cut back with a first time shot.
Nine minutes later and the miniature magician was at it again, smashing home from 20 yards after the Ecuador defence had failed to clear.
The goal saw Messi become the all-time leading scorer in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifiers with 20 goals, although Barca teammate Luis Suarez would later hit two goals of his own in Uruguay’s 4-2 defeat of Bolivia as both players ended on 21 goals.
And Messi’s hat-trick goal on 63 minutes was even better, picking up the ball some 40 yards out, he surged forward past a couple of half-hearted tackles before chipping a delightful shot over the keeper.
From then on it was plain sailing for Jorge Sampaoli’s side as they played out the remaining minutes to seal third place in the table and their tickets to Russia.
In the other games, two goals from Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus saw group winners Brazil wrap up their qualifying campaign with a 3-0 win over Chile, who were eliminated after finishing sixth.
Uruguay also qualified, finishing second overall after smashing Bolivia 4-2 thanks to goals from Edinson Cavani (1), Suarez (2) and Martin Caceras.
Colombia scraped into the fourth and final automatic qualifying spot thanks to a 1-1 draw in Peru, who go into the play off where they will face New Zealand.
All the CONMEBOL results:
Ecuador 1-3 Argentina
Brazil 3-0 Chile
Paraguay 0-1 Venezuela
Uruguay 4-2 Bolivia
Peru 1-1 Colombia