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The two-time champions — and losing finalists three years ago in Brazil — rode Messi’s hat trick in the thin air of the Andes and rallied for a 3-1 win over Ecuador, which took a surprising lead in the first minute.
“I told the group that Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes the world to him,” Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said. “Argentina took a step forward, and in time we can be competitive.”
U.S. will miss the World Cup for first time since 1986
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The top four teams in South America get automatic berths to Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the South American spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
On a dramatic last day of continental qualifying tournaments, six South American teams — separated by only four points over 17 matches — had shots at the World Cup entering play.
Chile and Paraguay missed out at the last moment. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
It looked easy for Argentina. But it wasn’t, particularly after Romario Ibarra gave Ecuador a 1-0 lead in the first minute.
Make that Messi.
Messi scored iff a pass from Angel di Maria in the 12th, left-footing home from close range. In the 20th, Di Maria slipped a pass through to Messi, who drove the ball into the top corner from 15 yards.
“I won’t make any promises,” said Sampaoli, the third coach in this qualifying cycle for Argentina, which lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 World Cup final.
Then he added: “The nationality of the best player in the world is luckily Argentine.”