When it really mattered and when the pressure was most intense, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina.
On the brink of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time in almost five decades, Messi scored all three goals in Argentina’s comeback 3-1 victory yesterday [Macau time] at Ecuador — overcoming the thin air in the Andes.
“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said. “This is what we came for. And on top of that we started behind. Luckily, we could react quickly and take the lead.”
Messi said the Argentina squad “will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this.”
But there’s still work to do for Argentina, the two-time champions who lost the final three years ago to Germany 1-0.
Messi has yet to hoist a major trophy for his country of birth, a contrast to the laurels he’s brought Barcelona.
He’ll turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, so this may be his last chance.
“Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup,” Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
The top four teams in South America get automatic spots at next year’s tournament in Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday 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 its 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 representative 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, after a 3-0 loss to Brazil, and Paraguay missed out. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
There was a major shock further north in the Americas with the U.S. slipping from third spot to fifth in CONCACAF qualifying for teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean with a loss in Trinidad and missing out on the World Cup. Panama secured the third automatic direct entry behind Mexico and Costa Rica, and Honduras finished fourth and secured a spot in a playoff against Australia.
It looked easy for Argentina. But it wasn’t, particularly after Romario Ibarra gave Ecuador a 1-0 lead in the first minute at 2,850 meters in Ecuador’s capital.
“Even with a goal against us you could see the certainty of a team that knew how to play the game,” Sampaoli said.
Messi for sure, and running mate Angel di Maria.
Messi scored off a pass from 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 15 yards.
Messi got his third in the 62nd, weighting a perfect 18-yard shot that went in just over the fingers of Ecuador keeper Maximo Banguera.
Argentina had scored only one goal in its last four qualifying games, and only 16 in 17 qualifiers entering the final.
“I won’t make any promises,” said Sampaoli, the third coach in this qualifying cycle for Argentina. The Argentine was successful as Chile’s coach, and at Spanish club Sevilla.
He also knows he had a little edge — a short guy named Messi, or “La Pulga” in Spanish — the flea.
“The nationality of the best player in the world is luckily Argentine,” he said. Stephen Wade, AP
Tite’s rebuilt Brazilian squad is winning back fans
Every time Brazil scores a goal at home now, the crowd chants “the champions are back.”
It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, only gaining momentum after Adenor Leonardo Bacchi — universally known as Tite — became the Selecao coach in September last year.
Tite’s tenure followed a gloomy period, when there were concerns among Brazilians that their revered national team may not qualify for the World Cup just four years after hosting the sport’s marquee tournament.
But with the unbeaten run under Tite stretching to 12 games with a 3-0 win over Chile on the last day of South American qualifying, the five-time champions have re-emerged as contenders for the World Cup title.
The Brazilians had already qualified in March, and could relax as six other South American countries competed for three other direct World Cup berths and one spot in an intercontinental playoff on the last day of qualifying.
“Tite is responsible for the change and for our great moment,” defender Dani Alves said after the win over Chile in Sao Paulo. “When it comes to tactics, he is well ahead of any other coach in Brazil these days. He is a great manager of people, too. And he will be key for us to keep that momentum until the World Cup comes.”
Tite was the people’s favorite to take over in June 2016 after a series of bad results for Brazil under Dunga and an ethical crisis at Brazil’s football confederation, with its chairman involved in corruption scandals.
At that point, Brazil had nine points from six games and was out of the World Cup qualification positions. The performances were below par, star Neymar was having difficulties, creative players such as Philippe Coutinho were being overlooked, and fans were still traumatized from Brazil’s 7-1 semifinal loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup.
It was quite a transformation in 12 months. And Tite’s new Selecao did more than merely win on the field. It won back its demanding fans with convincing victories over Argentina and Uruguay.
He also gave opportunities to players like midfielder Paulinho. The box-to-box player scored six goals in qualifiers, as many as Neymar, and was signed by Barcelona in the process.
“Tite’s team made me like to watch Brazil again,” said Juliana Moritz, a psychologist. “After the 2014 World Cup I promised to stop supporting Brazil, it was too much for me. Now it is different, we have the talents like Neymar and Gabriel Jesus and the coach is a nice, competent guy.”
The Brazil coach also encourages dialogue with players, and says he exchanges many tactical ideas with Beijing Guoan midfielder Renato Augusto, who has become a key starter under his helm.
The rebuilt Brazil squad no longer relies on a bulldozing No. 9, like Luiz Felipe Scolari’s World Cup squad did in 2014. Instead, Tite has used Manchester City’s Gabriel Jesus, who has delivered a team- leading seven goals in the qualifying campaign. AP