Definition of a clutch player, according to Google: Clutch performance in sports is the phenomenon of athletes under pressure, usually in the last minutes of a game, to summon strength, concentration and whatever else necessary to succeed, to perform well, and perhaps change the outcome of the game. Lionel Messi’s stunning hat-trick against Ecuador may not have literally scored in the final minutes of the game, but metaphorically it was in the last minute. Argentina were on the verge of the unthinkable; not qualifying for the Fifa World Cup. Going in to the final game, the situation was simple – win, or stay home. Their metaphorical mountain turned into Mount Everest after 37 seconds when Renato Ibarra fired the hosts ahead in Quito. But Lionel Messi displayed the one of the most clutch individual performances in modern sport to carry himself and his underperforming teammates up the Everest-esque mountain and into automatic World Cup qualification.
Lionel Messi may or may not be the greatest player ever, he may or may not be the greatest player currently. This article isn’t designed to weigh in on the infamous Messi v Ronaldo debate, or the Messi v Maradona one. The purpose is to just enjoy the majesty of Mr Messi, and to appreciate his greatness. Messi was part of a star-studded side that took on Ecuador, featuring Angel Di Maria and Lucas Biglia to name but a few. It is a side that boasts Gonzalo Higuain and Mauro Icardi in its depth, so how did a squad which contains so many elites be in such danger? They are three years removed from finishing runners-up in the World Cup final and two years removed from their defeat in the Copa America final against Chile. This is not a team who should have taken the full 18 matches to qualify.
Argentina started the day 6th in the table, knowing that nothing other than a win would suffice. Despite their lowly position in the table, Argentina’s win, coupled with some favourable results elsewhere saw them finish the campaign in third place, a position which truly does not reflect their performance over the previous eighteen games. Elsewhere in South America, Colombia and Peru played out a lacklustre 1-1 draw, which saw the Colombians qualify automatically for Russia 2018, and Peru lock in a playoff match against New Zealand in a winner takes all two-legged playoff match. This draw was met with some suspicion, as Colombian forward Radamel Falcao allegedly told the Peruvians that a draw would eliminate Chile. This is likely an exaggerated non-story, but the facts are that it did eliminate Chile. This yawn-fest of a draw saw Peru finish 5th, with 26 points, Colombia finish 4th, with 27 points and the Argentines secure 3rd with 28 points and a goal difference of +3.
After going a goal down inside one minute, Argentina needed a big performance from a big player. Lionel Messi scored the equaliser twelve minutes into the game. Messi ran down the middle, spreading the ball out wide to Di Maria. Di Maria cut the ball back into the centre first time, to which Messi struck the ball low into the back of the net with the outside of his left foot, beyond the reaches of Maximo Banguera in the Ecuadorian nets. Argentina hadn’t scored for 450 minutes, but the cultured strike from Messi was worth the wait (in the knowledge that they already qualified, of course).
Lionel’s first goal was due to a telepathic connection between himself and his teammate, Di Maria. The second was due to an Ecuadorian error 20 minutes in. The Ecuadorian defender failed to complete a simple pass, instead finding his casual pass intercepted by the onrushing Messi. He stole the ball from the defender, drove into the box and blasted his shot over the goalkeepers head and into the roof of the net. The set up to the goal may have been lucky, but the finish was of the highest calibre. Ecuador may have already been eliminated from the World Cup, but they were a tough team to break down, especially considering the extreme altitude of the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa in Quito.
The Ecuadorians mounted a strong comeback in the second half, but this was thwarted by a Messi masterclass an hour in. He drove the ball from 40 yards out, evading a number of defenders and taking the ball left, to just outside the eighteen-yard box. He struck the ball with his left foot, his third left footed goal of the game. It was a chipped shot, a lob of sort, and it soared over Maximo Banguera and into the back of the net. Straight into the back of the net, no bounce prior to the ball crossing the line. The away fans erupted, the substitutes ran onto the field and embraced their Messiah, overwhelmed by the emotion of knowing that they had all but secured their place in Russia next summer.
The risk of Argentina not making the finals was huge. Chile, Copa America holders and World Cup 2014 sweethearts failed to make the grade. The USA also didn’t make it, losing to my beloved Trinidad and Tobago, although rumour has it that this is just #FakeNews and CNN propaganda, according to US President Donny Trump. And of course,
Scotland didn’t make it, but it’s hard to justify them as a European powerhouse… The good news is that Argentina are not one of those teams to miss out. And despite their shambolic qualifying campaign, it is hard to rule them out of doing well in Russia.
With Lionel Messi at the forefront of the Argentinean attack, there is always a chance that they will win. Messi has been carrying teams for years, and to bet against Messi, Di Maria, Higuain and co would be a bold bet indeed. The squad has been a failure for two years, winning only seven of their 18 games, drawing a further seven and losing four. But a World Cup qualifying campaign is different to a World Cup tournament. They don’t have to travel thousands of miles over two years against old enemies and bogie teams aplenty. They have four weeks to play seven games, two of which will be group games of a supposed “easy” stature. Once a “big team” reaches the knockout rounds, the games come thick and fast, but they do for everyone. Argentina may be able to coast their way to a quarter-final, then rely on clutch players like Messi to steer them to victory. Or they could go full World Cup 2002 and bomb out in the groups. It is impossible to predict how Argentina will do next summer in Russia. For now, the Argentines will just be glad that Lionel Messi has ensured that their team has continued their tradition of qualifying for every World Cup since 1970. So long as Messi is fighting fit, Argentina have a chance. Will the clutch player have the opportunity to showcase his skills in another World Cup final? Find out in nine months time!