Messi the hero as Argentina sneak through; United States eliminated


Lionel Messi came to the rescue as Argentina battled back to beat Ecuador and secure their place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Messi’s hat-trick sealed a 3-1 victory but, much like the rest of their qualifying campaign, Argentina did things the hard way.

The 2014 runners-up began the day sixth in the group and needing a top-four place to qualify automatically.

They made a terrible start in Quito, losing a goal inside 38 seconds, but Messi struck twice by the 20-minute mark to put his team ahead.

A fine solo goal in the second half sealed the victory and Argentina’s passage to Russia.

Elsewhere in South America, Chile are out after losing 3-0 in Brazil.

The five-time winners and Argentina will be joined in Russia by Uruguay and Colombia.

Peru finished fifth in South American qualifying and will now meet New Zealand in a two-legged play-off.

The United States failed to progress from the CONCACAF qualifying section after losing to Trinidad & Tobago.

The USA started the night in the third qualifying place but ended up fifth after losing 2-1.

Panama jumped up to third courtesy of an 88th-minute winner against Costa Rica to reach their first World Cup finals.

European champions Portugal beat Switzerland in Lisbon to finish top of European qualifying Group B.

A draw or a loss would have left Portugal in the play-offs, but an own goal from Johan Djourou and a goal from Andre Silva took them through.

France beat Belarus 2-1 to win Group A, with Sweden finishing second despite losing 2-0 to the Netherlands.

The Dutch, who finished third in the 2014 World Cup, are out.

In Group H, Greece ensured their place in the play-offs with a 4-0 win over Gibraltar.

The European teams to qualify for the World Cup so far are: France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium and Iceland.

There are four more European places up for grabs, with eight nations – Sweden, Switzerland, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Greece and Croatia – taking part in two-legged play-offs.

Slovakia, who finished second behind England in Group F, are the nation to miss out on the play-offs as they are the second-placed side with the worst record.

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