Football | Magical Messi Carries Argentina to World Cup

The Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa is 2,782 metres above sea level. The host of the key World Cup qualifying match between Ecuador and Argentina has been a fortress Los Amarillos. Argentina had not won there since 2001. It was fitting then that Lionel Messi would achieve one of the high points of his international career, scoring a hat-trick to lead his team to the 2018 tournament.

The elevation in Quito often causes serious problems for those not adjusted to it, and upsets are common. Another seemed on the cards after less than a minute last night.

Almost straight from kick-off Romario Ibarra played a headed one-two with Ordonez before thumping the ball past Romero with his left foot. Argentina needed to win. Could the 2014 finalists be staying at home next summer?

The next World Cup without Lionel Messi was not a welcome thought. A player who has done everything he can at club level. He has won every major tournament he has played with Barcelona at least three times. He has scored over 500 goals, and won 5 Ballon D’Ors.

Yet for many, he cannot surpass the likes of Pele and Maradona until he wins the World Cup. The flaws of this argument are better left for another day but Messi has had a mixed time at World Cups in his career.

Underused at the 2006 World Cup as a teenager, Messi failed to score at the 2010 World Cup as Diego Maradona’s chaotic management saw Argentina outclassed by Germany in the knockout stage.

The 2014 World Cup was to be his moment, and he dragged Argentina into the latter stages with four straight man-of-the-match awards. But then from the quarter-finals onwards, it was not the Messi we had become accustomed to. Argentina still reached the final, losing in extra-time to Germany.

Had Higuain taken an excellent chance in normal time, or Gotze missed his sensational volley, Messi may well have been a World Cup winner. The Argentina won the Golden Ball award for the tournament’s best player. He had been one of the best, sure. But comparing to Pele 1970 and Maradona 1986, this was no Golden Ball performance.

Whatever your loyalties, the footballing world wanted to see Messi given one last chance at least of personal glory. That was never going to be straight-forward in the ultra-tricky South American qualifying.

A two-year grind against some of the best teams in the world, six of the top 16 teams in the FIFA World Rankings are based in the continent. The fact that reigning two-time Copa America champions Chile finished sixth, with four teams going through and one to a playoff over 18 matches, shows just how difficult it is.

And so Argentina spluttered along the campaign, underwhelming under three different managers. None have been ultimately able to find a way to find the required balance between defence and attack to get La Albiceleste playing the football that they are capable of.

Because of this, Argentina were outside the automatic qualification places heading into the final match. They had taken only three points in their previous four games, their only goal being an own goal against Venezuela. Missing a World Cup may have done this Argentina team a favour, allowing them to renew and look deeper at what is causing these poor performances from the national team.

But Messi is now 30 years old. He can’t wait for that.

Following the initial shock of conceding an early goal, Messi began to get on the ball and make things happen. A pass wide to Di Maria led to a first-time ball that flashed across the face of the goal and wide.

Still Ecuador had Argentina’s on the back foot. Until the 12th minute that is. Messi played a ball out to Di Maria on the left, who eased the return pass back to an alert Messi who stabbed in an excellent finish. He rushed to collect the ball to bring it to the centre circle. 1-1.

Then the 21st minute. Slaloming past the defender at the edge of the box he created some room for himself. A slight pause then a ferocious shot into the roof of the net. The best of the lot. A brilliant goal. 2-1.

Onto the 62nd minute. Messi finds space 35 yards out from goal. The great thing about this goal is its inevitability. He dribbles directly at the opposition, and with Benedetto making a fine off-the-ball run, Messi darts to left, lobbing the ball over Banguera in the Ecuador net. Relief. 3-1

A hat-trick when it mattered. Another chapter in his enormous legacy. For player that the narrative suggest hasn’t really done it for his country, it was his 21st goal in COMMEBOL World Cup qualifiers. His 61st goal for his country.

Messi has won the FIFA U-20 World Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal, but he has played in four World Cup or Copa America finals without winning. He is not giving up on a fairytale finish without a fight.

The task now for the next nine months for Sampaoli is to scramble together a formation that not only allows Messi to play like he did against Ecuador, but to give him the supporting cast that he will inevitably need when Argentina play the better teams of world football.

In 1986, even Maradona had Burruchaga and Valdano. Marked aggressively by Lothar Matthaus in the final, Maradona still managed to release Burruchaga with an excellent pass and the Argentine coolly finished. In previous finals, this has not been the case for Messi, let down by Gonzalo Higuain in particular when it comes to finishing off his passes.

What is sometimes forgotten about Brazil’s 2002 triumph is that they were similarly poor to Argentina in their qualification and stumbled over the line.

It was Scolari’s somewhat unorthodox formation for its time, 3-4-3, that allowed Brazil’s attacking trio of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo to flourish. Argentina’s possible supporting cast to Messi includes the likes of Dybala, Di Maria, Higuain, Icardi and Aguero.

In 2002, it was Ronaldo, the player of his generation, who got his fairytale World Cup win, scoring twice in the final. Can Sampaoli, a talented manager, come up with the formula to give Messi a happy ending next summer also?