NEW YORK – When it really mattered and when the pressure was most intense, Lionel Messi delivered for Argentina.
On the brink of being eliminated from World Cup qualifying for the first time in almost five decades, Messi scored all three goals in Argentina’s comeback 3-1 victory Tuesday at Ecuador — overcoming the thin air in the Andes.
“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said. “This is what we came for. And on top of that we started behind. Luckily, we could react quickly and take the lead.”
Messi said the Argentina squad “will change, will grow a lot, will be stronger after this.”
But there’s still work to do for Argentina, the two-time champions who lost the final three years ago to Germany 1-0.
Messi has yet to hoist a major trophy for his country of birth, a contrast to the laurels he’s brought Barcelona.
He’ll turn 31 during the World Cup in Russia, so this may be his last chance.
“Messi does not owe Argentina a World Cup, but rather football owes him a World Cup,” Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli said.
The top four teams in South America get automatic spots at next year’s tournament in Russia. Brazil has 41 points and clinched months ago. The other three advancing Tuesday went in this order: Uruguay (31), Argentina (28) and Colombia (27).
Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2, Argentina won 3-1, Colombia drew 1-1 with Peru and last-place Venezuela beat Paraguay 1-0.
Peru (26) placed fifth and will keep alive its bid for a first World Cup appearance since 1982 after edging Chile for the South American spot in the inter-continental playoff next month against Oceania representative New Zealand.
Chile, after a 3-0 loss to Brazil, and Paraguay missed out. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador were already out of contention.
Twenty-eight years after the United States ended a four-decade World Cup absence with a stunning victory at Trinidad, the Americans’ chances for the 2018 tournament in Russia ended on this island nation off the coast of Venezuela in even more astonishing fashion.
Needing only a tie and confident of victory against the world’s 99th-ranked team, the U.S. was eliminated from World Cup contention with a 2-1 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that ended a run of seven straight American appearances at soccer’s showcase.
“We let down an entire nation today,” said defender Omar Gonzalez, whose 17th-minute own goal started the collapse.
Even a defeat could have earned a berth, but only if Panama and Honduras both lost. And if the U.S. and only one of those rivals were beaten, the Americans would have finished fourth and advanced to a playoff next month against Australia.
Panama trailed 1-0 to Costa Rica at halftime and Honduras was behind 2-1 to Mexico, but both rallied against nations that already had clinched berths. Gabriel Torres scored for Panama in the 52nd minute on a shot that did not appear to cross the goal line, and Honduras went ahead on Guillermo Ochoa’s own goal in the 54th and Romell Quioto’s goal in the 60th.
At that point, the 28th-ranked Americans were playoff bound, but Roman Torres scored in the 88th minute to give Panama a 2-1 win, a third-place finish with 13 points and its first World Cup berth. Honduras finished fourth on goal difference and goes to the playoff.
The Americans, who would have qualified with 13 points because of a superior goal difference, instead had 12 points and finished fifth in the hexagonal.
“It’s a blemish for us,” coach Bruce Arena said. “We should not be staying home for this World Cup and I take the responsibility for that.”
American players were not aware of the scores of the other games until after the final whistle.
“When I looked over at the bench and everyone was sitting down,” Gonzalez said, “I could just see from the looks on their faces that it wasn’t good.”
In Europe, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and Antoine Griezmann’s France booked spots while the Netherlands crashed out.
Portugal beat Switzerland 2-0 in Lisbon thanks to a Johan Djourou own goal and an Andre Silva strike.
France needed goals from Griezmann and Olivier Giroud in a hard-fought 2-1 win over Belarus at the Stade de France.
After a stuttering campaign, France’s achievement in beating Bulgaria and Belarus in their final two qualifiers means it avoids the playoffs having had to go through that route for the last two finals.
“We have had a difficult route and tonight wasn’t easy either but we’ve achieved our aim,” coach Didier Deschamps said. “We are happy, even if qualifying is logical given the quality of the players I have.”
The Dutch, World Cup finalists in South Africa in 2010 and semifinalists four years later, bowed to the inevitable as they failed to achieve the unlikely 7-0 scoreline over Sweden they needed to salvage a wretched qualifying effort.
Arjen Robben scored twice in a 2-0 win over the Swedes in Amsterdam and said afterwards he was retiring from international soccer.
“I will always remember the 2010 World Cup and 2014. Those are my best memories. During those two competitions we formed a real team,” the 33-year-old Robben said.