By 90Min
October 11, 2017

Lionel Messi single-handedly dragged his Argentina side kicking and screaming to automatic qualification for the 2018 World Cup on a tense Tuesday night in Quito, Ecuador. 

Jorge Sampaoli's side looked in serious trouble early on, with the hosts scoring after just 40 seconds in a game Argentina needed to win to assure themselves of qualification for next summer's tournament in Russia - but a hat-trick from the Barcelona star pulled his team out of a fire, as he has done so many times before.

With Sampaoli choosing to continue with Boca Juniors striker Darío Benedetto up front instead of Mauro Icardi and Gonzalo Higuain - who didn't even make the squad for the matches - it was Messi who was left to create and finish most of the 2014 World Cup finalists' chances at altitude in the Ecuadorian capital. 

Defeat would have left Argentina sixth and out of the World Cup altogether, but Messi's heroics catapulted them up to third - with just two points separating four teams in the crucial qualification race. 

The USA, however, were not so lucky. Going into Tuesday's game against rock-bottom Trinidad and Tobago - who had lost eight of their other nine group games - Bruce Arena's team were firmly in the driving seat. 

Needing just a point to book their place in Russia, the Americans crumbled to a 2-0 half-time deficit - but looked as though they would keep their automatic qualifying spot, with rivals Panama and Honduras struggling against the group-leading pair of Costa Rica and Mexico. 

Christian Pulisic got a second half goal back for the USA and things looked, if not rosy, then acceptable. Then Panama equalised against Costa Rica thanks to a phantom goal which never came close to crossing the line, before Guillermo Ochoa's bizarre own goal gave Honduras parity against Mexico. 

That combination of results would still have been enough for the USMNT to qualify - and even Romell Quioto's 60th minute winner for Honduras only meant an eminently winnable playoff for Arena's men against Australia. 

Then Román Torres scored for Panama in the 88th minute, and all hell broke loose. The USA finished fifth in a group of six, from which four teams could be reasonably expected to qualify. They finished behind Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras, after failing to win a single away game. In a system that almost guaranteed qualification, they failed. US football has a lot of work to do at an institutional level to recover. 

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