At high altitude and amid even higher stakes, Lionel Messi produced a stunning individual display to drag Argentina from the brink of humiliation to the World Cup finals in Russia.
After only 38 seconds in Quito on Tuesday, Jorge Sampaoli’s side were on their knees – a goal down and with the prospect of missing football’s flagship tournament for the first time since 1970 growing with every second.
But in Messi, they have the small man for the very biggest occasion. For years the Barcelona forward has been plagued by accusations that his legacy will be dented if he fails to land a World Cup medal. On the back of this qualifying campaign, that looks further away than ever.
After Romario Ibarra had put Ecuador into a first-minute lead, captain Messi rescued his side with his fifth — and most vital — international hat-trick. The forward netted twice in eight first-half minutes to turn the game on its head before a wonderful chip after the break secured the victory and their plane ticket to Russia.
Heading into the Quito clash, the situation for Sampaoli’s side could hardly have been more complex, yet so simple.
Before Tuesday’s final round of matches, Brazil were the only South American side to have secured qualification. Behind them six sides — separated by only four points — all held lingering hopes of qualifying for next year’s finals.