Megastar Messi's hat-trick lifts Argentina to World Cup, United States tumble out
Lionel Messi's three goals lifted Argentina into the 2018 World Cup on the last day of South American qualifying, keeping the Albiceleste from missing out for the first time since 1970.
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, who 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.''
There was a major shock in CONCACAF qualifying for teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean, with the United States slipping from third spot to fifth with a loss in Trinidad and missing out on the World Cup.
The top four teams in South America get automatic berths to Russia. Brazil had 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive their 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 representatives 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.
Chile lost 3-0 to Brazil, the 12th straight unbeaten qualifying game for Brazil coach Tite. Venezuela defeated Paraguay 1-0.
It looked easy for Argentina. But it wasn't, particularly after Romario Ibarra gave Ecuador a 1-0 lead in the first minute.
"Even with a goal against us you could see the certainty of a team that knew how to play the game,'' Sampaoli said.
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 15m.
Messi got his third in the 62nd, weighting a perfect 18m shot that went in just over the fingers of Ecuador keeper Maximo Banguera.
"I won't make any promises,'' said Sampaoli, the third coach in this qualifying cycle for Argentina, who 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.''
The United States will be absent from the World Cup finals for the first time since 1986 after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to Trinidad and Tobago in Couva.
Despite an inconsistent qualifying run, the Americans entered the Ato Boldon Stadium needing only a win over the bottom team in the CONCACAF final qualifying group to punch their ticket to Russia.
But two first-half goals, an Omar Gonzalez own goal in the 17th minute and an Alvin Jones effort 20 minutes later, proved too much for the Americans to overcome despite Christian Pulisic's strike after the break.
Instead, Panama qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time with their 2-1 victory over Costa Rica, while Honduras beat Mexico 3-2 to pip the United States to a playoff place against Australia.