October 11 – Cometh the hour, cometh Lionel Messi. Just when the odds were stacked in favour of Argentina failing to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time since 1970, the mercurial maestro struck a superb hat-trick away to Ecuador to haul his country back from the brink of elimination.
The 2014 runners up began the day sixth in their group and needing a top-four place to qualify automatically.
They made a desperate start in the altitude of Quito, falling behind after just 38 seconds, but fought back courtesy of their inspirational five-time world player of the year.
“Luckily the nationality of the best player in the world is Argentinian,” said coach Jorge Sampaoli. “We must be sure everything does not depend on Leo [Messi] but today he brought his great ability.
“I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi. We should help him be in the World Cup.”
Uruguay and Colombia joined Argentina in the finals after a dramatic last round of South American fixtures that also saw Peru clinch a playoff spot against New Zealand and South American champions Chile miss out as one of the most notable absentees in Russia.
“Luckily, we reacted quickly after Ecuador scored,” Messi said following Argentina’s 3-1 win. “Thank God, we fulfilled our objective.”
A second-half goal from Paolo Guerrero kept Peru’s hopes of a first World Cup appearance since 1982 very much alive when his brilliant free kick in Lima cancelled out Colombia’s opener from James Rodriguez. Peru, unbeaten in their last six qualifiers under Argentine manager Ricardo Gareca, now have a home-and-away playoff against Oceania champions New Zealand.
Five-times champions Brazil had already qualified before their game against Chile in Sao Paulo but a 3-0 home win saw the visitors drop from third to sixth in the table, failing to even qualify for the inter-continental playoff.
In Europe, the evening was almost as dramatic as European champions Portugal sneaked into the finals automatically with a 2-0 win over Switzerland that sent the Swiss into a playoff spot and wrecked their perfect record in Group B. They had led the group since beating Portugal 2-0 in the corresponding fixture over a year ago and went on to win all nine matches before defeat on Tuesday.
The most notable European absentee in Russia next year will be the once-feared Netherlands – for the second tournament running having failed to make Euro 2018. The Dutch won their concluding qualifier 2-0 at home to Sweden but couldn’t prevent the Swedes grabbing a playoff berth at their expense on goal difference.