Quito : Lionel Messi scored a brilliant hat-trick as Argentina sealed their place at the 2018 World Cup with a 3-1 victory over Ecuador here.
Barcelona superstar Messi single-handedly rescued Argentina’s World Cup hopes as the South American giants came from behind to win in Quito. Romario Ibarra had given Ecuador a shock lead after only 38 seconds but Messi struck twice inside the opening 20 minutes to give Argentina the lead before adding a third in the second half. It was a vintage display from Messi, delivering for Argentina when it mattered most to erase fears that the two- time champions might not qualify for next year’s finals in Russia.
Argentina had got off to a disastrous start, conceding a goal in the opening minute as Ecuador took full advantage of hesitancy in the visiting side’s defensive ranks. Argentina stalwart Javier Mascherano failed to deal with a speculative long ball forward from Dario Aimar, directing a headed clearance into the path of Romario Ibarra. Ibarra calmly headed to team-mate Roberto Ordones who then steered a header back to Ibarra for the Universidad Catolica midfielder. It was the worst possible start for a shell-shocked Argentina, who had kicked off chasing their first victory in the Ecuadoran capital since 2001. For a while Argentina struggled to get to grips with a vibrant Ecuador, who looked to push forward at every opportunity. But it was not long before Messi stamped his authority on proceedings, hauling his team back into the contest with a composed opening goal. The equaliser came in the 12th minute when Messi darted forward and quickly released Angel Di Maria down the left. The Paris Saint-Germain attacker duly returned the favour as Messi raced into the penalty area to poke home a low finish past Maximo Banguera. Eight minutes later and Messi had fired Argentina into the lead with another virtuoso strike. When a loose ball fell kindly to the 30-year-old’s feet just outside the area, Messi accelerated past a clutch of yellow shirts and uncorked a thunderous left-foot shot which flew into the top corner.
Messi’s double-blast galvanised Argentina, who gradually grew in confidence through the remainder of the half, carefully maintaining possession to frustrate Ecuador’s hopes of regaining the initiative. Messi then completed his hat-trick with the best goal of the night in the 62nd minute. Once again finding himself in space outside the Ecuador penalty area, the diminutive maestro burst clear and lofted an exquisite chip over Banguera from just inside the box to make it 3-1.