“The final team talk was that we all had to take Messi, the best player in the world, to Russia.”
Since taking charge of the Argentinian national team in June, Jorge Sampaoli has strived to create the right conditions for Lionel Messi to thrive. He also made that emotional appeal in the build-up to the nerve-jangling match in Quito, where the No10 demonstrated once again – just as he did throughout the entire qualifying campaign – that it was he who took La Albiceleste to the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.
Messi’s impact on a team that had three different coaches across the 18 qualifying games cannot be overstated. Against Ecuador he spearheaded the fightback after Argentina had gone 1-0 down after 40 seconds, dominating the game and netting all three of his side’s goals. Indeed, his first hat-trick in South American qualifying could not have arrived at a more crucial time.
“We only have ourselves to blame for having let big opportunities go by,” Messi said after the final whistle. “We made life complicated for ourselves and it wasn’t easy coming to play here. There was a fear that we might not qualify. I don’t know how I’d have reacted if that had happened, it would’ve been crazy for Argentina. So we had to do it, Argentina simply couldn’t not qualify.”
There are several ways to quantify his considerable influence on Argentina’s path to Russia 2018. His first goal against Ecuador was the first time in 446 minutes that an Argentinian player had scored. The previous occasion anyone in an Albiceleste shirt found the net was via a penalty, giving Argentina an undeserved victory over Chile on Matchday 14. The scorer? Messi.
He netted a total of seven goals in ten games, finishing as second top scorer in South American qualifying behind Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani, who played in 15 matches. Over the course of the two-year qualifying campaign, several other Argentinian strikers – Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Lucas Pratto, Lucas Alario, Mauro Icardi and Dario Benedetto – were given opportunities to varying degrees, but only found the net three times between them.
Indeed, Argentina’s final tally of 19 goals was their lowest since the round robin format was introduced in South American qualifying ahead of France 1998. It was also the lowest haul of the continent’s four qualified teams. Messi missed eight games through either injury or suspension, but with him on the pitch Argentina won 21 of their 28 points.
“We had different coaches and it’s always difficult to start from scratch and adapt to a new philosophy,” Messi said. Between them, Gerardo Martino, Edgardo Bauza and Sampaoli fielded a total of 42 different players. And not once was the same starting line-up selected.
After qualification was secured the Argentinian dressing room exploded in a chorus of song, something that has rarely happened in recent years despite having finished as runners-up at the last World Cup and the two most recent Copa America tournaments. The sense of relief among the players, media and fans was huge.
Asked in the mixed zone whether the triumph in Quito was like “winning a fourth final” following the trio of aforementioned disappointments, Messi was categorical in his response: “We did what we had to do. It’s Argentina’s obligation to qualify every time. Now we have to get ready for the World Cup.”