Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli had strived to create the right conditions and atmosphere for Lionel Messi to thrive.
During the final team talk, the coach tried to drive his team by focusing on the point that the mesmerizing number 10 had to be in Russia.
"The final team talk was that we all had to take Messi, the best player in the world, to Russia."
It was an emotional appeal to a team which had failed to make it in the final hurdle of Copa America 2015, in the final of the Copa America Centenario in 2016 and in the final of the 2014 World Cup.
Ironically it was Messi who had been dragging them throughout the World Cup qualifiers – under three different coaches no less.
Messi’s hattrick against Ecuador ensured third place finish for Argentina. The odds were against La Albiceleste as they faced Ecuador in Quito. Things did not get much better when Argentina conceded within the first minute before Messi netted all three of Argentina’s goals to drag them to the World Cup.
How much influence did Messi have in the qualifiers?
Messi’s first goal against Ecuador in the 11th minute was also the first time an Argentine player had scored for Argentina in 446 minutes of play. The last time an Argentine player scored prior to the Ecuador match? Lionel Messi, who scored a penalty to give his side an 1-0 victory against Chile on Matchday 14.
Over the span of the two-year qualifying campaign, Messi scored seven goals from 10 matches. This means that the Argentine missed eight qualifiers through injuries and suspension. He still was the second highest scorer in the South American qualifiers, only behind Uruguay’s Edinson Cavani, who finished with 15 matches.
Over the 18 match qualifying campaign, Argentina tried Gonzalo Higuain, Sergio Aguero, Lucas Pratto, Lucas Alario, Mauro Icardi and Dario Benedetto as strikers. All of them combined scored only three goals – a damning stat if one considers that these strikers have had Messi playing behind them as a playmaker.
Argentina’s tally of 19 goals was the lowest among the four qualified teams and it was also their lowest haul since round robin format was introduced in South American qualifiers ahead of France 1998.
Messi missed eight matches during the qualifiers and in those eight games Argentina only managed seven points. Argentina managed 21 of their 28 points in the 10 games that Messi played in and thus 75 per cent of their points came with him on the pitch.
"We only have ourselves to blame for having let big opportunities go by," Messi commented 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."
Messi also expanded on the difficulty of playing in the qualifiers under three different types of coaches.
"We had different coaches and it's always difficult to start from scratch and adapt to a new philosophy," Messi said.
"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," the modest playmaker said when he was asked if winning at Quito was like 'winning a fourth final'.