Lionel Messi’s heroic hat-trick dragged Argentina back from the brink of an embarrassing World Cup exit with a 3-1 win in Ecuador.
Argentina’s victory catapulted them from sixth into the automatic qualification places as they joined Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia in booking their spots in Russia.
After the shock of falling behind after 40 seconds to Renato Ibarra, Messi shouldered the hopes of an entire nation and put in one of the greatest individual performances in international football history by scoring a famous treble when it mattered most.
Argentina, who have been at every World Cup finals since 1970 and twice won the tournament, knew anything other than victory would have meant elimination.
It seemed pretty inconceivable that one of international football superpowers would not make it to the World Cup – but that looked a serious possibility when Ecuador took a shock lead inside 40 seconds.
Argentina, who hadn’t scored in open play for 450 minutes, needed inspiration and it came from a familiar source.
Messi and Angel Di Maria had already caused havoc inside the first 10 minutes when they teamed up to devastating effect two minutes later. Messi played a clever one-two with the winger before sweeping home from close range.
The four-time Ballon D’or winner now has another crack at adding a World Cup winners medal to his CV.
Elsewhere, Peru’s draw against Colombia was enough to secure them a play-off with New Zealand for the final spot, which meant Chile were eliminated after they lost 3-0 in Brazil.