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Messi’s alternate reality keeps Argentina dreaming

Lionel Messi set himself alongside sport’s all-time greats with a virtuoso display in Ecuador to rescue Argentina’s World Cup hopes.

There are few sporting spectacles more thrilling than when one of the greats finds themselves backed into a corner, only to decide such a level of discomfort is unacceptable.

For ordinary, good or even excellent performers there is no way out, merely an obligation to pride that resistance should be offered until the end. An elite and exceedingly rare breed are wired a little differently, however.

In the 1981 Ashes, England’s cricket team had Ian Botham; in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cleveland Cavaliers had LeBron James. On Tuesday, facing the ignominy of failing to reach Russia 2018, Argentina had Lionel Messi.

The World Cup taking place without arguably the finest player ever to lace boots moved from being a remote prospect to a genuine threat as Argentina shambled underwhelmingly through a rotating cast of head coaches and centre-forwards during the gruelling slog of CONMEBOL qualification.

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When Romario Ibarra breached something vaguely resembling a defensive unit in light blue and white stripes to give Ecuador a 1-0 lead after 38 seconds in Quito, a Messi-less showpiece next year was demonstrably probable.

Argentina had not won at the Ecuadorian capital’s punishing altitude since 2001. A side that had scored 16 times in the previous 17 qualifiers now almost certainly needed two goals.

Jorge Sampaoli’s men were a rabble during those opening exchanges, seemingly unable to catch their breath 2,850 metres above sea level. But, standing that much closer to the clouds, they were blessed to have a man in their midst playing as if he had just descended from above.

In the 12th minute, Messi cut through the blundering efforts of many around him to find Angel Di Maria in the left channel, a player mercifully on a similar wavelength. The return ball found a perfectly timed run and a nonchalant prod home with the outside of the left boot – a training-ground finish to steady an impending collapse.

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Argentina were useless without their talisman during this campaign, taking seven points from the eight matches he missed due to injury or suspension. Messi knew this was all on him.

Quickly, it became virtuoso stuff. A stunned Ecuadorian defence offered the little genius a fraction too much room and he made them suffer repeatedly.
Goalkeeper Maximo Banguera beat away a thumping drive after two defenders were left trailing. Another dazzling run ended with Messi hacked to the floor, his free-kick spinning behind off the wall.

The under siege Banguera had no chance when Messi darted in to rob the hapless Dario Aimar in the 21st minute and lashed a stunning finish into the top corner.

He should have had an assist to his name after the half hour when a sumptuous throughball found Di Maria but Banguera stood firm. Messi slid an apparently more straightforward pass out for a goal kick in the 38th minute, at least reminding everyone he is mortal.

Argentina clunkily brought their everyman limitations to the fore at the start of the second half when reactive and rash defending combined with a lack of midfield control put an Ecuador equaliser on the cards.

Sampaoli must recoil at this spluttering assortment when set against the exemplary sides he recently put together with Chile and Sevilla. He has eight months to find the right combinations.

In the 62nd minute he was given more compelling motivation to do so.

Messi chested the ball down 35 yards from goal and surveyed his options. A hypnotised Robert Arboleda hesitated just long enough to fall victim to that familiar drop of the shoulder a shift of weight to the left – the acceleration that has humiliated so many opponents.

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Just as Ecuador’s defenders look as if they might have recovered enough ground to inconvenience Messi, his trusty left foot chipped a finish, as ludicrous as it was inevitable, beyond Banguera.

Game over; dream alive. Messi will be there, gunning for glory at the final World Cup of his peak years and he did it all by himself. Ask Botham, James and the rest – some sporting greats are just wired a little differently.

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