Lionel Messi provides deliverance as Argentina makes it to the 2018 World Cup.
Argentina had been struggling without him when the diminutive Argentine was suspended for four matches. His suspension was eventually cut short to two matches.
Even before that, during this qualifiers, Argentina had missed his services for seven games as Messi was out with an injury.
Argentina have won only once in the seven games that Messi had missed. With him Argentina won five of their six matches prior to the suspension. That is how poor Argentina have been in this qualifying campaign without their leader.
However, Messi’s commitment and leadership have both come into question – especially in light of the defeats in the World Cup and Copa finals.
When Argentina came into the final match of the qualifying round against Ecuador, they knew anything other than a win could be catastrophic.
A jittery Argentina took the field in Olimpico Atahualpa stadium, Quito in Ecuador and their worst fears came alive as Ecuador scored within the first minute.
An anxiety took over Argentina and they succumbed to the pressure. UK based Independent wrote: “Disaster. Potential desolation. That anxiety became something else, something worse.”
However, Messi stepped up. He stepped up when everything else -- particularly team mentality, was staring to crumble.
He got them back level on the 11th minute before he gave them the lead on the 19th. This match was all about Messi and he delivered at their most dire moment.
Not only did the great man put his team on his back and took them to the 2018 World Cup in Russia but he also ensured that he did not allow Argentina’s wretched performances deny him a place on football’s greatest stage.
“Not even Diego Maradona had to do this, in a team under-performing like this. This was the Hand of God in a different way, and the way he did it was even more impressive than the bold bald fact that Messi scored a hat-trick to deliver his side to the World Cup,” The Independent further added.
Argentina had gone into the second half with a 1-2 lead but they never looked like a confident side and Ecuador pushed them. The players had begun to feel the burn of playing at the altitude of 2,850m and the pressure was beginning to tell. Ecuador players were controlling the flow of the match and were physically and athletically much better equipped. A couple of tackles here and there were starting to get rather nasty as well.
In the chaos Messi upped his level. Messi had looked like he was suffering at the beginning of the second half, not being able to influence the match. However, one of his unique gifts is to explode into life when it often seems like he has drained himself.
Two minutes past the hour-mark, Messi produced an inexplicable finish after one of his trademark runs. The magician pulled another rabit out of the hat as he saw the keeper come out of his line and chipped him while he was getting shoved away from the ball.
The performance may not be enough to silence his critics but for now Messi has done what was needed to be done.
After the game, Messi said: "It would have been crazy not to be in the World Cup. The group deserved to qualify."
True to form, the Argentine talked about the collective but this time around we saw a Messi who had decided to be freer. Messi had often been too calculative, perhaps too constrained when he plays for Argentina – too busy being a team player. Set loose amidst the chaos, Messi thrived this time around.