QUITO • Down by a goal in the very first minute of a must-win qualifying match on Tuesday, desperate Argentina needed an inspiration from anyone, anywhere, anyhow, in order to rescue their World Cup hopes in the rarefied air of Quito, capital of their opponents Ecuador.
When the inspiration arrived, it was from a tried and trusted source: the twinkly feet of Lionel Messi.
The Argentina skipper scored a hat-trick - the third goal a stunning lob while being pushed off-balance by an Ecuador defender - in the 3-1 win and can now look forward to his fourth appearance at the World Cup Finals next year in Russia.
Relieved Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli - the third coach appointed during their chaotic qualifying campaign - could not avoid expressing his gratitude to the Barcelona superstar after the win.
"Messi doesn't owe a World Cup to Argentina - football owes a World Cup to Messi," he said.
"He's the best player in history. But this is a team victory. They played a brilliant match."
Messi was more relieved than elated after the comeback win, saying: "Luckily, we reacted quickly after Ecuador scored. Thank God, we fulfilled our objective."
FOOTBALL IN HIS DEBT
Messi doesn't owe a World Cup to Argentina - football owes a World Cup to Messi.
JORGE SAMPAOLI, Argentina coach pays tribute to his country's talisman.
His nation shared the same sentiments. Argentina fans, who were stunned into silence after Ecuador's early goal, exploded with joy after Messi's virtuoso display.
"It's complicated, I want the team to be at the World Cup in Russia, but only a miracle can make them (win the Cup). I'm going to pray for them," said Maria Cordoba, a 64-year-old optician.
Even music yielded to Messi when Irish rockers U2 delayed their concert by almost two hours to allow fans in the La Plata stadium near Buenos Aires time to watch the match on giant screens. When they finally came on stage, they kicked off a giant party.
While Argentina celebrated, it was a miserable night for Sampaoli's former team Chile.
The reigning Copa America champions were soundly beaten 3-0 by Brazil in Sao Paulo. Barcelona's Paulinho opened the scoring before Manchester City forward Gabriel Jesus bagged a brace to secure the win for the table-topping hosts.
Chile - featuring the likes of Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez and Bayern Munich's Arturo Vidal - finished level on points with Peru, but lost out on a two-legged play-off against New Zealand on goal difference.
Twists and turns in qualification
With all five matches in the final round of South American qualifying played simultaneously, there was plenty of jostling for positions during the 90 minutes of action yesterday morning (Singapore time).
Ecuador stun Argentina with an early goal. If Argentina do not score, they are out of the World Cup.
Lionel Messi scores his second goal, as Argentina lead. They jump to third spot, pushing Peru out of qualification.
Brazil score two quick goals to lead 2-0 against Chile. Chile now drop below Peru for the fifth-placed play-off spot on goal difference.
Brazil score their third to knock Chile out.
Coach Juan Antonio Pizzi announced his resignation following the exit. "I take full responsibility," he told reporters. "We gave everything but it was not enough. I will not continue."
Peru meanwhile kept alive their hopes of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1982 with a battling 1-1 draw with Colombia in Lima.
Colombia took the lead through James Rodriguez in the 56th minute before veteran striker Paolo Guerrero equalised in the 74th minute. The result saw Colombia qualify alongside Uruguay, 4-2 winners over Bolivia in Montevideo.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN