Ecuador 1-3 Argentina World Cup 2018 qualifiers: match report, goals, action
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
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.