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Tuesday produced plenty of memorable drama in World Cup qualifying. We had Syria’s impressive run halted by Australia, we had Portugal nudging their way ahead of Switzerland on the final day, Croatia winning in Kiev to claim a playoff berth, and misery for the USA as Panama clinched a place in the finals for the first time ever.

But if there was one name that stood out from all the rest, that name was Lionel Messi.

Argentina were right up against the ropes. A troubled qualifying campaign meant they were in very real danger of missing out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970. And when they went 1-0 down to Ecuador after just 40 seconds, it was starting to look ominous. They hadn’t won in Quito for sixteen years…

Surely the Russia 2018 World Cup wasn’t going to go ahead without the greatest player of them all being there?

Messi to the rescue

Thankfully, the Barça star had not had his final say. A spectacular hat-trick meant he almost single-handedly guided Argentina to a 3-1 win and qualification for next summer’s showpiece event.

If there have ever been doubts about Messi’s failure to replicate his magic at club level when wearing the famous albiceleste jersey, those doubts were dispelled forever on Tuesday night.

The Argentine press was positively oozing with praise for a man who surely now deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the great Diego Maradona.

The Messi-ah’ hailed the front pages of Página 12 with an image that might cause some controversy with local churches, while Diario Olé is finally convinced that Messi is Argentinian and adds its Thanks to the best player in the world.

La Nación simply went for Gracias Messi, and El Territorio headlined by with the words Gigantic Messi.

Three great Messi goals send Argentina to Russia says La Capital, Messi shines and takes Argentina to the World Cup says La Rioja, and so it goes on.

There has been criticism for Messi in Argentina in the past. But nobody is criticising him today

Messi and Suárez joint top in Conmebol

The hat-trick didn't just send Argentina to the World Cup. It also means that Messi is now the joint all-time leading goalscorer in South American qualifying matches with 21 goals.

And who does he share the record with? Why, it’s his very own Barça team-mate Luis Suárez, who bagged two goals of his own in Uruguay’s 4-2 defeat of Bolivia last night.

The previous incumbent of the record, Hernan Crespo, finished his international career on 19, while the next players on the list are two Chileans, Marcelo Salas and Ivan Zamorano with 18 and 17 goals.

Of course, it is perhaps a misleading stat, as modern-day players have much more opportunities to score in the mammoth 18-game qualifying campaign than they did in the much shorter systems used in the past. But its nevertheless wonderful news to see two Barça players side-by-side at the peak of the South American game.

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