Lionel Messi put on his Superman cape Tuesday night and led Argentina to a much-needed 3-0 home triumph over Colombia at Estadio del Bicentenario to bolster the side's outlook in CONMEBOL qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
Messi tallied a goal and an assist inside the first 25 minutes to give the Albiceleste an instant boost following losses to Paraguay and Brazil in their last two qualifiers. Lucas Pratto and Angel Di Maria also found the net in the win for the reigning World Cup finalists.
A loss to rival Brazil last Thursday left Argentina outside the top five—four direct qualifiers and one playoff participant—in the regional qualifying standings with seven matches to go. Yet head coach Edgardo Bauza stated his confidence about reaching the World Cup hasn't wavered, per ESPN FC.
"I never put qualifying for Russia 2018 in doubt," he said Sunday. "The points we've lost hurt, but we still depend on ourselves. The group is strong and that gives us confidence. We've lost points that we didn't think we would, and it's normal that criticism has come out."
The Albiceleste certainly came out as the more determined side Tuesday. They controlled the pace of play throughout much of the opening 10 minutes, and it eventually paid off thanks to another moment of individual brilliance from Messi.
Argentina's all-time leading scorer lined up a free kick from around 25 yards out and delivered a perfect shot into the upper 90 to grab the early lead in the 10th minute. The latest highlight-reel effort was almost a carbon copy of his goal against the United States in June's Copa America Centenario.
Squawka Football pointed out the forward's international hot streak:
Miguel Delaney of ESPN FC pinpointed just a few of the areas where Messi has no current equal:
The Barcelona superstar, who was the best player on the pitch by a massive margin, was directly involved once again as Argentina increased its lead in the 23rd minute.
Messi took a seemingly innocent pass along the sideline and, in the span of six touches, cut to the middle, almost caused a defender to fall down and lofted a perfect cross into the box. Lucas Pratto made a nice run and finished the play with a calm header inside the far post to make it 2-0.
Ben Hayward of Goal commented on the legend's terrific start:
Tom Webber of Omnisport News credited Bauza for giving Pratto the starting nod over more marquee options like Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero:
To nobody's surprise, the level of physicality picked up after the second goal. There were five yellow cards handed out during the remaining portion of the first half, three to Argentina and two to Colombia, as the game got chippy.
James Rodriguez, Radamel Falcao and the rest of the Colombian attack tried to amplify the pressure after the halftime break. The Argentine back line and midfield stood tall, however, keeping the Cafeteros out of dangerous areas while the match still hung in the balance.
That's why the visitors finished the match without a single shot on target.
Di Maria capped the scoring for the Albiceleste in the 84th minute as Messi also picked up his second assist of the contest.
A steal by Messi allowed him to create a three-on-two situation in the box for Argentina, and his ensuing delivery slid right into the path of the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, who easily fired his shot into an open net for the team's third goal of the match.
Colombia's best opportunity came in the final moments, as Rodriguez whipped in a hopeful free kick, but it struck the goal post to preserve the clean sheet for Sergio Romero.
Fox Soccer summed up the match, otherwise known as the Messi Show:
Looking ahead, Argentina is in far better position than it was coming into the match, but its work is far from done in terms of punching a ticket to Russia. There are still eight teams alive in the race for those five coveted spots at this stage of CONMEBOL qualification.
The process is now on hold until March. The Albiceleste will face a home clash against Chile and a visit to Bolivia during that next group of fixtures. Coming out of those matches with no less than four points should keep them on track for a top-four finish.
Meanwhile, the continued strength of Ecuador is making life more difficult on the region's powers, and it's left Colombia in a precarious spot. The Cafeteros can take care of some business in that regard as they face the upstart contenders along with Bolivia in March.