Lionel Messi was not going to miss the World Cup.
With Argentina's qualifying fate hanging in the balance, the superstar took control in Tuesday's CONMEBOL contest at Ecuador and spearheaded a 3-1 victory. While his side allowed a goal within the first minute, he answered with a hat trick in a pressure-packed environment.
Ecuador had already been eliminated from World Cup consideration before Tuesday's slate, but it had the opportunity to play spoiler. Roger Gonzalez of CBS Sports broke down the scenarios, noting the top four teams in CONMEBOL would automatically qualify for Russia 2018 with the fifth-place team set to play New Zealand in a playoff.
Argentina entered play sixth in the table with 25 points and would qualify with a win "as long as Chile doesn't beat Brazil, Colombia and Peru draw or Peru beats Colombia by a less margin than Argentina," Gonzalez wrote.
Argentina didn't have to worry about a worst-case scenario because it had Messi on its side, and Squawka Football noted La Albiceleste reached their 12th straight World Cup with the win.
The game wasn't without its speed bumps for the victors. Romario Ibarra found the back of the net in the opening minute with a left-footed shot off a beautifully placed header from Roberto Ordonez:
Ecuador controlled 55 percent of the possession, though it couldn't parlay that into a shots advantage, with Argentina tallying 13 to its nine, including a 7-3 advantage in shots on goal, per ESPN FC.
Messi came to the rescue with his 12th-minute goal off Angel Di Maria's centering pass. He played Superman again with a left-footed finish into the top corner eight minutes later:
Argentina struggled to assert its will against a mismatched opponent even after it seized the lead. Miguel Delaney of The Independent said the visitors were "ceding ground and panicky when defending."
The thing about having Messi, though, is the other players can afford to cede ground from time to time.
He beat goalkeeper Maximo Banguera for a third time in the 62nd minute, all but ensuring Argentina would advance to the World Cup. It was another left-footed finish and came with multiple defenders closing the gap at the top of the box:
Messi's brilliance was more than enough for goalkeeper Sergio Romero and the Argentina defense to secure the victory, especially with Ecuador struggling to generate consistent scoring chances despite solid possession totals.
Argentina will turn its attention to the World Cup, and it figures to be a dangerous opponent. La Albiceleste reached the 2014 final against Germany and will likely be among the title contenders again even though they struggled to qualify.
There is one reason for their status as a potential World Cup winner, and he put the team on his back Tuesday.