Lionel Messi's three goals ensured Argentina's bid for an automatic spot in Russia next year
When it really mattered and when the pressure was most intense, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina.
On the brink of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time in almost five decades, Messi scored all three goals in Argentina's comeback 3-1 victory Tuesday at Ecuador — overcoming the thin air in the Andes.
"It would've been crazy if Argentina didn't play the World Cup," said Messi, adding that the team "will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this."
Messi scores 2 goals in 8 mins to keep Argentina alive as World Cup contenders! Wow! pic.twitter.com/77DaAyYt2A— E5QUIRE (@Dj_E5QUIRE) October 11, 2017
But there's still work to do for the two-time champions who lost the final three years ago to Germany 1-0.
Messi has yet to hoist a major trophy for his country of birth, a contrast to the laurels he's brought Barcelona.
Seeing a happy Messi gives meaning to life. pic.twitter.com/e7CYKf7uo5— Barça (@semprebarcaa) October 11, 2017
He'll turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, so this may be his last chance.
"Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup," Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
Messi is hands down the 🐐. he’s out here scoring goals while falling bro. pic.twitter.com/DeGjvt0lx6— Jamison Jenkinson (@jaamisonn_) October 11, 2017
The top four teams in South America get automatic spots at next year's tournament in Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the South American spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
On a dramatic last day of continental qualifying tournaments, six South American teams — separated by only four points over 17 matches — had shots at the World Cup entering play.
Chile, after a 3-0 loss to Brazil, and Paraguay missed out. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
(With inputs from AP)