Lionel Messi fired a spellbinding hat-trick in the world cup qualifier against Ecuador to help Argentina script a brilliant 3-1 victory.The Barcelona superstar’s majestic strikes helped the two time World Cup winners book a spot in Russia next summer.
Romario Ibarra had given Ecuador a shock lead after only 38 seconds but Messi struck twice inside the opening 20 minutes to give Argentina the lead before adding a third in the second half.
It was a vintage display from Messi, delivering for the Albiceleste when it mattered most to erase fears that the two-time champions might not qualify for football's most prestigious tournament.
Argentina started the final night of South American qualifiers in the sixth place, with only the top four qualifying for the World Cup.
They then got off to a disastrous start, conceding a goal in the opening minute as Ecuador took full advantage of hesitancy in the visiting side’s defensive ranks.
For a while Argentina struggled to get to grips with a vibrant Ecuador, who looked to push forward at every opportunity. But it was not long before Messi stamped his authority on proceedings, hauling his team back into the contest with a composed opening goal.
The equaliser came in the 12th minute when Messi darted forward and quickly released Angel Di Maria down the left.The Paris Saint-Germain attacker duly returned the favour as Messi raced into the penalty area to poke home a low finish past Maximo Banguera.Eight minutes later and Messi had fired Argentina into the lead with another virtuoso strike.
When a loose ball fell kindly to the 30-year-old’s feet just outside the area, Messi accelerated past a clutch of yellow shirts and uncorked a thunderous left-foot shot which flew into the top corner.
Messi’s double-blast galvanised Argentina, who gradually grew in confidence through the remainder of the half, carefully maintaining possession to frustrate Ecuador’s hopes of regaining the initiative.
Messi then completed his hat-trick with the best goal of the night in the 62nd minute. Once again finding himself in space outside the Ecuador penalty area, the diminutive maestro burst clear and lofted an exquisite chip over Banguera from just inside the box to make it 3-1.
Apart from Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia and 4 time champions Brazil too have qualified for the World Cup. Uruguay defeated Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, and Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru. Peru now heads to next month's playoff at the expense of Chile, who were eliminated.
With PTI inputs