Messi comes to Argentina's rescue on a dramatic night in CONMEBOL
It was a night of drama in South American World Cup qualifying. Tim Vickery watched, from first kick to last.
Argentina kick off in Ecuador with their fate in the balance, but amid the endless permutations, what is certain is that a win will be good enough to guarantee at least fifth position and a playoff spot. But as all five games kick off simultaneously, Argentina are sixth and not going to Russia. Over the next 90 minutes, something, somewhere, must change to keep Argentina in the World Cup.
It does not take long for things to get worse for the Argentines. Coach Jorge Sampaoli has taken a risk by reverting to a back three for this game, and in the middle, Javier Mascherano will clearly be at a disadvantage in the air against bulky Ecuadorian striker Roberto Ordonez.
This makes it fundamental that Argentina prepare to defend against the second ball, the knockdown. But Ecuador have flying wingers who will look to get behind the wingbacks, and a vulnerable defensive formation takes just 38 seconds to leak.
Ordonez beats Mascherano in the air, Ecuador left winger Romario Ibarra gets behind Eduardo Salvio, and with right-side defender Gabriel Mercado unsure whether to cover Ibarra or move in, Ibarra slots a shot past Argentina goalkeeper Sergio Romero. Argentina are a goal down and seemingly on their way out.
Soon there are encouraging signs, though. Unlike recent opponents, Ecuador have not turned up to spoil and frustrate. It is an open game. At last, Lionel Messi has space. Finally, he has a partner with whom he can link.
Angel Di Maria has played in a variety of different positions during the qualifying campaign. Recently, he was bizarrely used wide on the right; left-footed, he kept cutting inside, making the pitch smaller and easing the task of the opposing defence.
But the advantage of Sampaoli's back three is that, with Marcos Acuna as a left-side wingback, Di Maria is free to roam, get close to and combine with Messi. It is clear from the early stages that the pair are capable of opening up the Ecuador defence and, after 11 minutes, an exchange of passes leads to Messi slotting home the equaliser.
Nerves have been settled, but at this point, Argentina are still eliminated. There are no goals in any of the other games, meaning Sampaoli's team are sixth in the table and outside the qualification positions. But not for long. After 19 minutes, Messi combines again with Di Maria, robs centre back Dario Aimar, and plants a shot in the top corner with the ease of someone who had picked the ball up and placed it there with his hand.
The great player had come good when his country needed it most -- and all of a sudden, if this result holds, Argentina climbs to third in the table, qualifying automatically. But there are still 70 minutes to go, and the effects of altitude would kick in the longer the game wore on. And Ecuador, anxious to end the campaign on a high, make an attacking change before the interval, introducing star striker Enner Valencia, who was not deemed fit for the full 90 minutes.
At half-time, then, Argentina still have cause for concern. With the other key matches goalless - and Uruguay 2-1 up on Bolivia and on their way to Russia -- a draw will not be good enough.
Argentina adjust after the break to an orthodox back four, giving themselves cover against Valencia. The formation alters to an orthodox 4-4-2, with Messi up front alongside Dario Benedetto and Di Maria on the left wing.
With Messi and Di Maria further apart, the team's attacking play loses fluency, but it hardly matters. Argentina are now in the unaccustomed position of taking the heat of the game and running the clock down.
The drama is taking place elsewhere. Paraguay, who must win, are unable to break the deadlock at home to Venezuela. Chile, meanwhile, concede two quick goals away to Brazil. It pushes them down to sixth, outside the qualification positions, with Peru in fifth, the playoff spot.
Then James Rodriguez scores for Colombia against Peru, meaning Chile are back in fifth until Paolo Guerrero equalises for Peru. It is another blow for Colombia goalkeeper David Ospina, badly at fault for the two late goals Colombia conceded on Thursday. Guerrero's free kick was an indirect kick and counted as a goal only because Ospina got a touch on the ball as it beat him to his left.
By this time, Messi has made things safe for Argentina. With a touch of fortune, a clearance balloons to him in space. Benedetto's run across the defence carries Aimar with him and opens up space for Argentina's talisman to break onto that magical left foot and chip the goalkeeper to complete one of the greatest and most important hat tricks of his career, securing a 3-1 victory and his country's place in the 2018 World Cup.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.