Ecuador 1 Argentina 3
Argentina will be going to the 2018 World Cup finals thanks to the magic of Lionel Messi.
The Barcelona striker scored a sublime hat-trick to ensure his country didn’t miss out on their first tournament since 1970.
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“We fought, we suffered and we couldn’t not be at the World Cup,” Messi said afterwards. “After this [result], the national team will be different, it’ll grow.”
Needing victory in Ecuador to ensure their passage to Russia, Argentina got off to the worst start imaginable, going a goal down after just 38 seconds as Romario Ibarra put the hosts ahead. It was the quickest goal conceded by Argentina in a World Cup qualifier and their fans must have feared the worst.
But the setback seemed to inspire Messi and he equalised on 12 minutes, firing home after an exchange of passes with former Manchester United midfielder Angel di Maria.
Eight minutes later he made it 2-1 to the visitors with a fierce strike into the top corner, and he completed his hat-trick just after the hour mark with a deft lob over the Ecuador goalkeeper.
“Luckily, we reacted quickly after the goal,” said Messi. “Today was an important day for us all… it’s important that we’re all united, that the national team does well. If we all go together, it’ll be much easier.”
But while Messi returns to Europe a happy man, Alexis Sanchez will arrive back at Arsenal disconsolate.
The Chilean striker was on the wrong end of a 3-0 drubbing by Brazil, a result that - coupled with Peru’s 1-1 draw with Colombia - means his country dropped from third to sixth, one spot outside the play-off place.
Instead Peru, whose equaliser came from Paolo Guerrero on 76 minutes, finished fifth and earn the right to play Oceania champions New Zealand next month for a place in next year’s World Cup.
The last time Peru appeared in a World Cup was 1982 and New Zealand coach Anthony Hudson believes that his team are well placed to prolong the South Americans’ absence from the tournament.
“It’s going to be tough, but certainly it’s a game that we all believe we can do something in,” he said.
Meanwhile two goals from Messi’s Barcelona teammate, Luis Suarez, helped Uruguay to a 4-2 win over Bolivia, a result that means they finished second behind group winners Brazil but ahead of Argentina and Colombia, the other two automatic qualifiers.
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