Ecuador 1-3 Argentina: match report
His country needed him. The fans needed him and most importantly, perhaps, his teammates needed him. And Lionel Messi obliged as he so often does. He landed a hat-trick as Argentina beat Ecuador 3-1 in Quito on Tuesday night to book themselves a place at the World Cup next summer.
It looked like it was going to be a long night for the visiting side as Ecuador took a very early lead. Romario Ibarra poked the ball past Sergio Romero inside one minute as the fans were still piling into the stadium.
A nightmare campaign looked like it would end fittingly. That was before Messi sprung to life though. He had the albiceleste level after 11 minutes when a neat one two with Di Maria was sent past Banguera and he made it 2-1 just seven minutes later when a slightly heavy pass form Di Maria was chased down by the Barca star and he won it back before slamming a shot to the back of the net.
He wheeled away with delight and everything seemed okay for once with Argentina.
Ecuador, with nothing to lose, drove forward at every chance, and while Argentina never looked truly comfortable at the back, they managed to keep the home side at bay.
Messi sealed the deal and his hat-trick on 62 minutes when he looped a shot past the helpless Banguera. At 30, and with his last World Cup at his very best next summer, he had single-handedly willed his side into the tournament.
There was no way back for Ecuador, who were playing for little more than pride. They huffed and puffed but it was over and they knew it.
Argentina knew it too. Their nightmare qualifying stage was over and they could finally put it behind them with a place in Russia secured and more time and less scrutiny to get things right under Sampaoli before next summer.
Ecuador vs Argentina live stream online: as it happened
90'+2' GAME OVER! Argentina into the World Cup.
90'+2' The Argentina squad jumping up and down on the sideline. They know what's coming.
90'+2' Icardi through on goal. He thinks he's offside, maybe. But he misses and he wasn't offside.
90'+1' Cross into Estrada. He heads it oer. Too high for him.
90' Eduardo Salvio is replaced by Fazio. He comes in to seal things at the back for the last roll of the dice for Ecuador.
90' Biglia with another foul and Ecuador have one last chance to put a dent in the scoreline.
86' Mascherano with a yellow fora poor challenge on Uchuari.
85' Romero out and claims that with authority.
84' Paredes replaces Di Maria.
82' Ibarra takes Messi out of it and the Argentine is down grabbing his ankle.
82' Mercado stops another Ecuador attack. No way through for the home side.
79' Otamendi and Estrade clash heads together. Both okay but the Ecuadorian's header goes over the bar.
77' Ecuador sub. Intriago is replaced by Uchuari
76' A couple of changes now. Benedetto is replaced by Icardi.
74' Ecuador win a corner.
72' Di Maria sends a cross high and over the penalty area. Ecuador build again. They've dropped a gear now since that third goal.
69' Ecuador running out of ideas.
64' Corner for Argentina. The sting gone out of Ecuador's challenge now.
62' Messi cut out to his left and lofted a shot over Banguera.
62' GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! GOAL! Messi. His hat-trick.
61' Biglia booked. Messi gave the ball away Renato Ibarra stole in and took it up the field, grabbing a yard on the Argentine and Biglia felt he had to pull him down to stop his very dangerous progress.
58' Otamendi clears. Ecuador bring the ball forward and get a cross in trying to take advantage of Argentina's poor defensive set-up. They've looked dodgy at the back. Corner.
56' Otamendi goes down under a tackle from Ordones. He rolls around on the ground and then gets up to have a word with the striker.
54' Ecuador continue to push forward. What an effort from a team who don't have anything to play for. Velasco down the right and crosses but Romero comfortable as he grabs it.
52' Dangerous ball in from the free is headed out for a corner.
51' Acuña with a foul and receives a yellow for it too.
49' Ramirez down the right and delivers an absolutely perfect cross into the penalty area but there's nobody in a yellow shirt there. Cleared away.
47' Argentina win a corner. Di Maria the man who tried the cross but it's blocked and sent over the goalline.
46' Here we go! We are underway.
Ecuador back on the field and waiting patiently for the Argentines. Maybe grabbing a minute or two extra to recover from the altitude. Or Sampaoli driving home some tactical points.
45' HALF-TIME! What a half. This one is far from over. Argentina haven't fully settled and Ecuador continue to look dangerous.
44' Acuña fouls Orejuela now. And he's not happy. Some of that anger still boiling over a little bit.
43' Benedetto thinks he's away but he handled the ball. Called back.
42' Valencia gets involved early on with Acuña. He barges into the back of him and the Argentine swings an arm but ref has a word with both and everything seems to be resolved.
41' Cevallos on for Enner Valencia. He was on a yellow and obviously not trusted to keep himself under the radar.
41' Mascherano covering for Mercado as he gets caught out with a pass around the back.
39' Long ball to Di Maria but he can't do anything with it.
36' A good spell brought to a halt by Ibarra being offside. Argentina with the chance to clam things back down to their liking.
35' Corner headed clear. Another cross comes in and Romero boxes clear but tries to stop it going out for a corner...and can't.
33' Romario Ibarra tries to head towards goal out on the left but two Argentinian players combine to stop him and put it out for a corner.
31' Messi puts Di Maria throughhe strikes with his right foot and Banguera saves but puts it out for a corner!
29' Intriago writhing in pain after falling to a Messi and Perez combo foul. Messi was pulling his jersey and Perez fived in. No cards and the Ecuadorian is back up again.
27' Aimar far to aggressive in his approach there against Benedetto. He is complaining but clearly caught the man.
24' Benedetto climbs all over an Ecuadorian defender to win the ball. No free. Even he slowed down thinking it would be whistled. Argentina lose it and Ecuador start their very own attack.
22' Argentina finally calm things down and start playing it around. Electric atmosphere in Quito. Moreso when Messi gets the ball.
20' Who else!? Lionel Messi puts Argentina 2-1 up. Di Maria feeds him and he chases it down, wins it back and drives home. Lovely finish.
18' Referee needs to have a chat with Mercado and Aimar before Messi takes it. The free eventually arrives and it's delfected off the wall and up over the crossbar.
17' Messi turned upside down and has a chance from outside the box. Arboleda the culprit this time and it draws a wry smile from Messi.
15' Messi has a strike. Banguera forced into a save.
13' A wild challenge by Cevallos on Enzo Perez and he is booked for that effort.
10' Foul by Ecuador and it's a taken quickly. Who else but Lionel Messi. Di Maria puts it on a plate for him and he pokes it home.
8' Messi corner is cleared. It eventually falls to Di Maria and he strikes with his left. It goes across goal and wide. Always dragging.
5' Ecuador building. Ibarra shoots and it is deflected up into Sergio Romero.
2' We barely had time to settle into our seats! Messi fouled by Renato Ibarra and takes the free. That's tame though.
Ecuador score!!!! 1-0. My word. Slotted home by Ibarra
Teams out now and national anyhrems being played!
Argentina have picked up 25 points from a possible 51. Brazil on the other hand have 38.
In terms of what Argentina need to do. If they win, they will be assured of a play-off spot in fifth place but will move up to fourth if Brazil don't lose to Chile.
Sampaoli also sticks to his guns with Benedetto up front. He has Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala to call on if necessary but he didn't against Peru even though he was unlucky with the Fernando Gago substitution. The midfielder had to be replaced after five minutes with a torn cruciate knee ligament.
Argentina line up as expected: Romero, Mercado, Mascherano , Otamendi, Salvio, Acuña, Enzo Pérez, Biglia, Messi, Di María, Benedetto.
Ecuador teams news it in: Banguera, Velasco, Renato, Romario, Cevallos, Ordóñez, Arboleda, Ramírez, Intriago, Orejuela, Aimar.
If Argentina do start with Di Maria, it might be a smart move. Might be in the minority with this opinion but he wasn't bad in the opening half against Peru. It didn't go well for him with his end product but the same can be said for everyone bar Messi. He still has that spark and the ability to cross a ball like few others.
Reports suggest that this is the Argentina to play Ecuador: Mercado, Mascherano, Otamendi; Salvio, Enzo Pérez, Biglia, Acuña; Messi; Di María, Benedetto.
Certainly not your average clarion call.
Don't forget that we also have live online text commentary of Portugal and Switzerland's crunch clash over in European World Cup qualifying. The second half is just underway in Lisbon, with the hosts leading 1-0 and, as it stands, heading through to Russia 2018 - condemning the Swiss, who had won nine out of nine in Group B before tonight, to the play-offs. Join Matt for the action.
And, as football statistician Mark O'Haire also notes above, the Albiceleste's record in Ecuador is not good.
Argentina have traditionally suffered playing at high altitude and their previous trips to Quito have been exhausting affairs they'll probably prefer to forget. The Albicelestes' last win at the Estádio Olímpico Atahualpa was in August 2001 when goals from Juan Sebastián Verón and Hernán Crespo had the game wrapped up more or less in the first half hour. Ecuador have won two of the three meetings at this stadium since then, with the June 2013 meeting ending in a 1-1 draw.
Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli was understandably keeping tight-lipped about his team on the eve of the match but he will likely opt for a 3-4-2-1, playing with three centre-backs and Messi and Papu Gómez playing just behind Darío Benedetto in attack. Sampaoli has tried out several variations over the past few days in training. His main concern is putting out a team which can cope at playing at an altitude of 2,800 metres where oxygen levels drop.
Ecuador stunned Argentina by beating them 0-2 when the two sides met earlier in qualifying at the Monumental in Buenos Aires in October 2015. Two goals inside two minutes from Frickson Eraso and Espanyol striker Felipe Caicedo did the damage
Looking calm and focused. There were no signs of nerves among the Argentina squad as they boarded the team bus to set off from their base in Guayaquil to Quito - a seven-hour drive covering the 430 kilometres between the two cities.
Tickets for the match were still being snapped up at Estádio Olímpico Atahualpa in Quito yesterday. Ticket prices range from 20 to 200 dollars. The stadium, which is perched 2,850 metres above sea level, has a capacity of just under 36,000.
Argentina are 6th in the group on 25 points - the same as Peru and one less than Chile and Colombia. To qualify directly, Argentina must beat Ecuador and hope Chile and Colombia lose or draw their respective games against Brazil and Peru. If all three teams win but Argentina don't beat Ecuador by more goals than Peru manage to score against Brazil, then Sampaoli's team will go into the Play-offs. They will also make the Play-offs even is they lose but only if Paraguay and Peru both lose by more goals.
Here's how it stands in the South American qualifying group. Uruguay are practically guaranteed a place at Russia 2018, even if they lose to Bolivia tonight, it would still depend on other results going against them for them to drop out of the top four qualifying places. Chile and Colombia both require a win from their games against Brazil and Peru. Ecuador are already out but we'll get onto Argentina's chances of qualifying in just a minute...
Hello and thank you for joining us for our live minute-by-minute coverage of this World Cup 2018 qualifier between Ecuador and Argentina - the final qualifying match in the South American group. Join us as we build up to kick-off over the next few hours and bringing you all the latest news concerning both teams.
Ecuador vs Argentina live online: preview
The phrase 'must-win-match' is often used premiscuously. It is often ascribed to September clashes between two teams teetering on the edge of a relegation zone, or after a run of two staight defeats. But it can justifiably be used to describe Argentina's visit to Ecuador in the final round of Russia 2018 qualifiers, with La Albiceleste faced by the galling possibility of missing a first World Cup since 1970.
Jorge Sampaoli's side heaved to a draw against Peru in the early hours of Thursday morning. The magic of Lionel Messi could not drag Argentina to victory, nor could the constant growl of La Bombonera. Their fate is still in their own hands. Colombia's surprise defeat to Paraguay has constricted the qualifying group like a shrinking concertina. Argentina lie in sixth place, below the one play-off spot, having scored a paltry 16 goals in 17 games. Yet if they win in Quito, they will be guaranteed at least a play-off against New Zealand to reach Russia. The permeatations are such that a if other results go their way, a draw could be enough to secure automatic qualification.
For their part, Ecuador are already eliminated. La Tricolor are five points adrift of the play-off place.
The home side have lost their last five competetive fixtures, and have an interim coach in the form of Argentine Jorge Célico. The 53-year-old has named a relatively inexperienced squad, with just eight of players plying their trade outside Ecuador.
Manchester United's Antonio Valencia (who is eight caps shy of his century) forms part of the squad, but experienced campaigners such as Felipe Caicedo, Christian Noboa, and Jefferson Montero are not involved. Michael Arroyo will also be out after receiving a red card in the previous match against Chile.
While the Ecuador team is experiencing a period of transition, they retain one crucial advantage: the altitude. Quito sits 2850 metres above sea level, resulting in a reduced oxygen supply and generally challenging conditions for football. Sampaoli's Argentina have found playing at altitude particularly difficult, as shown by a 2-0 defeat to Bolivia in La Paz in March. On that occasion, Argentina tried a frenetic counter-attacking style that played in to the hands of the hosts. A more savvy, possession-based approach will be necessary against Ecuador.
Dario Benedetto did not impress against Peru in his home stadium. The Boca Juniors striker could not convert his domestic form on to the international stage, squandering two chances and contributing little.
Yet reports from the Argentine media suggest that he may continue to lead the line, with Benfica's Eduardo Salvio and Ángel Di María playing either side of Lionel Messi in a 4-2-3-1 formation. With Mauro Icardi and Paulo Dybala also in the squad, that continued faith in Benedetto would be difficult to justify.
Fernando Gago will definitely be out, having ruptured a cruciate ligament during the draw against Peru.
Ecuador vs Argentina live online: odds and betting
Could Ecuador dig in at home and take advantage of the altitude? Another 0-0 draw that would see Argentina's fate leave their own hands is priced at 11/1.