Cometh the hour, cometh the man. An entire nation sat in front of their televisions on Tuesday, biting their nails and waiting for inspiration to come from a single diminutive individual with the No. 10 on his back. And Lionel Messi, the Messiah and the Albiceleste's hat-trick hero, did not disappoint.
Argentina's 3-1 triumph over Ecuador that sealed qualification was tense, scrappy, and more than a bit fortunate. But ultimately their magnificent captain put in the display 43 million people were waiting for to drag them kicking and screaming into the 2018 World Cup. With another result it may even have proved Leo's final game with the national team – it would at least have been difficult to imagine him soldiering on for another five years for another crack at the apple in Qatar
The result itself was anything but a foregone conclusion. Aficionados of ominous statistics oft repeated in the build-up to the game that Argentina had won just once in the heights of Quito, the altitude of the Ecuadorian capital proving a daunting barrier to success over the years. And only a win would guarantee the Albiceleste at least a spot in the play-off, with automatic qualification out of their hands and depending on results elsewhere on a frenetic night of South American action.
Another less than encouraging statistic also weighed heavy on Argentine minds. Not since November 2016 had one of their players manage to score from open play, a fact almost incomputable when set against the rich attacking talent the nation is capable of fielding. Messi himself had netted the last goal from someone in an Argentina shirt way back in March, a rather soft penalty against Chile. But the Barcelona magician cocked his thumb at those heavy omens and instead put in a match-winning performance to down chaotic yet brave Ecuador.
At first, it appeared that disaster was set to strike. Just 39 seconds into the encounter the hosts took advantage of some atrocious defending to go ahead through Romario Ibarra. It was precisely the start Jorge Sampaoli must have wished to avoid, forcing Argentina to push even further forward in Quito's paper-thin atmosphere to seek parity and then superiority.
Luckily Messi was on the field to put things right – and this time, in a welcome change, he was not alone. So often left a forlorn, frustrated figure shorn of company in international colours, the neat pass received from Angel Di Maria 12 minutes into the clash must have felt like manna from heaven. He made no mistake, sliding home past Maximo Banguera to level the score and keep the World Cup dream alive.
The second was testament to his perseverance and commitment to the Argentina cause. Chasing up a loose ball, he powered past his marker and powered the ball into the net from an uncomfortable angle for 2-1. And the third of the evening, to mark the 44th perhaps the most important hat-trick of his entire career, was pure unadulterated inspiration. Banguera was left stranded by a lob that came out of nowhere, the mark of a true genius coming through when it really counted. No wonder that even the home fans were reduced to applauding their executioner, a scene of graciousness in defeat seldom-seen in hyper-competitive South America and a mark of the effect Messi has on his rivals.