Argentina owe Lionel Messi World Cup says manager Jorge Sampaoli
On the brink of being barred entry to the World Cup for the first time in almost five decades, Messi scored all three goals in Argentina’s final qualifying match, battling back to overcome the thin air of the Andes and the setback of losing a first-minute goal to Ecuador.
“It would have been crazy if Argentina didn’t play in the World Cup,” said the talismanic forward, who had helped the two-time champions to the final in Brazil three years ago only to be beaten by Germany, once again denying the Barcelona star a major trophy with his national team.
Due to turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, time is running out for him to rectify that glaring omission in his lengthy honours roll.
“Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup,” said the Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli.
The 3-1 win over Ecuador allowed the country to breath a sigh of relief, as normal life ground to a halt while the pivotal match was played, with even U2 opting to screen the match live to concert goers, choosing to wait until the final whistle before taking to the stage.
Argentina had gone into the game fully aware that the eyes of the world would be watching for their result but, while fully aware of the shockwaves that would rumble round the globe if they messed things up and acutely conscious of the consequences of coming up short, Messi and Co had insisted they were confident that failure was not an option.
The nerves still got to them at the beginning of the game, with only Messi seeming impervious to the jitters. Instead, as others panicked at going one down, he rose to the occasion in the way only a genius of his ilk really can.
Up against a side who had nothing to play for having lost their last five qualifiers and sacked their coach Gustavo Quinteros last month, Argentina were favourites but they were also playing with a huge weight of expectation on their shoulders. In the end, Ecuador’s caretaker boss Jorge Celico, like so many have before him, had no answer to the mercurial Messi.
As for the attacker’s Argentine manager, Sampaoli, pictured right, could only thank the footballing gods that he had arguably the world’s greatest player ever at his disposal.
“Even with a goal against us you could see the certainty of a team that knew how to play the game,” said Sampaoli of the player who has dragged his team to the World Cup, in a way few other individuals could ever even contemplate. As has been the case so often throughout a career that is punctuated by so many individual honours, team titles and trophies at club level, the Barcelona icon grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and proved as clinical as he is creative. In winning the game for his home nation, he also gave himself one more shot at wrapping up a footballing legacy with the international honours denied him thus far.
Romario Ibarra gave Ecuador a 1-0 lead in the first minute. It caused the nerves to jangle but Messi scored from a Di Maria pass 11 minutes later, left-footing home from close range, and in the 20th minute, the pair linked up once again, with Di Maria slipping Messi in and he drove the ball into the top corner from 15 yards.
Messi got his third goal in the 62nd minute, flighting a delightful 18-yard shot that went in just over the fingers of Ecuador keeper Maximo Banguera.
“This is what we came for. We started behind. Luckily, we could react quickly and take the lead,” said the hat-trick hero. “Luckily, we reacted quickly after Ecuador scored. Thank God, we fulfilled our objective,” he added, promising that the squad will be stronger by the time the World Cup kicks off next summer. But his gaffer knows that the four-time Ballon d’Or winner will be the key man.
“The nationality of the best player in the world is luckily Argentine,” said Sampaoli. “But I won’t make any promises,” added the coach, who has a track record of success as Chile’s coach, and at Spanish club Sevilla but is Argentina’s third coach in this qualifying cycle.
The 1978 and 1986 world champions had scored only one goal in the last four qualifying games, and only 16 in 17 qualifiers entering their final group match. It left them teetering on the edge of missing Russia 2018.
As the final round of group games got underway, Argentina sat sixth in the ten-team South American section, with only the top four countries qualifying for Russia automatically and the fifth-placed side facing a play-off.
But with little between the teams, on a dramatic last day of qualifying tournaments, six of the South American teams were separated by only four points, leaving everything up for grabs. And while five-times champions Brazil were assured their place, having booked it months ago with a dominant qualifying campaign, they still had a say in who would join them.
Their 3-0 home victory over Chile saw the visitors slip down the standings, from third to sixth, and meant that they will be spectators when the footballing jamboree kicks off in Russia.
In the end, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia joined Brazil after Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1 and Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru, who finished fifth to keep their chances of qualifying alive. Last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0 to deny them.
Peru are bidding for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after pipping Chile for the inter-continental play-off next month, against Oceania representative New Zealand.