Until Tuesday, there was the potential that the world’s two best players would be watching international football’s showpiece event from home.
Then Lionel Messi happened. And Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been in such sublime form throughout the World Cup qualifiers, got some help from his Portugal teammates on a rare off night, and just like that, the two booked their places for Russia 2018.
There were heroic performances all across the world, with just one round of fixtures left. Here are Seven Deadly Stats from the qualifiers…
MESSI CARRYING ARGENTINA
It seems remarkable that a country that can call upon players like Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Gonzalo Higuain, and Paulo Dybala, among others, is so reliant on one man.
Thankfully that one man is Lionel Messi.
Argentina still have a lot to figure out if they’re going to be serious contenders for the crown next year, because even Messi can only take them so far. But for now, just reflect on exactly how far he’s taken them.
Two pretty incredible Leo Messi/Argentina stats!
— 101 Great Goals (@101greatgoals) October 11, 2017
RONALDO THE TALISMAN, DESPITE OFF NIGHT
Hours before Messi’s incredible performance, his great rival fluffed his lines in a similar situation – but it didn’t matter.
This Portugal team is arguably better than the one that won Euro 2016, and they showed it on Tuesday as Bernardo Silva pulled the strings to ensure they beat Switzerland and avoided the playoffs, even though Ronaldo wasn’t at his best.
It’s largely down to him that Portugal were even in the position of knowing a win would secure their passage, however. Ronaldo put on some amazing displays during Portugal’s campaign.
Cristiano Ronaldo finished with 15 goals & 3 assists in just NINE matches to lead Portugal back to the World Cup. Insane production.
— Adam Joseph (@AdamJosephSport) October 10, 2017
POLAND NEEDED LEWANDOWSKI’S RECORD-BREAKING FORM
Before this edition of qualifying, the most any player had scored in a single European qualifying campaign for the World Cup was Predrag Mijatovic, who scored 14 times to help his nation qualify for the 1998 World Cup.
Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski both surpassed that total, with the Bayern Munich striker beating his Real Madrid counterpart by one goal to hold the record outright. And Poland needed every one of his 16 goals.
If Messi and Ronaldo can be described as having carried their teams at times, what does one say about Lewandowski’s achievements for his nation?
6 – Only Robert Lewandowski’s goals were worth more points to his side than James McClean’s in this World Cup qualifying campaign. Crucial. pic.twitter.com/lv4WF7tj5J
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 11, 2017
IS BORING THE ANSWER FOR ENGLAND?
England didn’t face the toughest opposition in their group, so the criticism they’ve received for insipid displays is definitely justified.
They have a potentially thrilling attacking trio in Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Dele Alli, but they need significant upgrades on the midfield players behind those three in order to be a genuinely exciting side. Jordan Henderson (and, to a lesser extent, Eric Dier) just isn’t going to cut it.
But perhaps there’s merit in being hard to beat. Even at their worst, England made sure they conceded as few goals as possible – again, it must be said, against not too challenging opposition – but maybe trying to contain the likes of Germany or Brazil will be slightly more feasible than going toe-to-toe with them.
8 – England kept the most clean sheets (8) and conceded the joint-fewest goals (3) among all Euro teams in this WCQ campaign. Blockade. pic.twitter.com/TPI5WOPqPi
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) October 11, 2017
PANAMA PROVIDE THE FEEL-GOOD STORY
For a while, it looked as if the fairytale of this World Cup qualifying campaign would be Syria, who played Australia even and took the regional powerhouses to extra time after two legs. But the Socceroos broke Syrian hearts with an extra-time goal, leaving football enthusiasts to look elsewhere for a story to warm their hearts.
It came from the other side of the world, as Panama are heading to the World Cup for the first time in their history.
The story has all the makings of a classic. Yes, they benefitted from a ghost goal, as their equaliser against Costa Rica clearly didn’t cross the line. And they needed the help of a truly atrocious performance from the USA, who contrived to lose to bottom side Trinidad and Tobago.
But an 88th-minute winner, the joyous scenes at the stadium and on the pitch, the president declaring the next day a holiday to let people celebrate – what more can you ask for?
— #WCQ ⚽️🏆 (@FIFAWorldCup) October 11, 2017
THE EGYPTIAN MESSI LIVES UP TO HIS NAME
Speaking of drama, it doesn’t get much better than how Egypt secured their World Cup spot.
The weight of their own history, as Egypt had failed to qualify since 1990, with several near-misses since then, was heavy, and it seemed like that tale could be repeated again when Congo scored an equaliser on Sunday. To be fair, even if Egypt didn’t get the win, they had one qualifying fixture left – but that’s against Ghana next month, which was never going to be an easy proposition.
No matter. Up stepped Mo Salah, to score an injury-time penalty – imagine the pressure on his shoulders in the moment – and end Egypt’s long wait.
That goal was monumental, but for Salah it was almost business as usual. He’s been in superb form for his country (not to mention, his club) to ensure Egypt wouldn’t miss out on a World Cup again.
Mohamed Salah has now scored 15 goals in his last 18 competitive games for Egypt. 🇪🇬
— Oliver Bond (@Oliver__Bond) October 8, 2017
BACK TO MESSI
There are plenty of other moments and stats to choose from – Tim Cahill’s evergreen display against Syria springs to mind – but this round of qualifying was all about one man, so it’s fair to come back to him.
Argentina were poor throughout their qualifying campaign, and it wouldn’t have been a surprise had they lost to Peru. But when you have Messi, you have a chance.
Lionel Messi for club & country in 2017:
We are not worthy. 🙇 pic.twitter.com/GrtigqNKtq
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) October 11, 2017
Could he do it on a wet and windy Wednesday night in Stoke? Well, on a clammy evening in Quito at 2.8km above sea level, on a heavy, pocked pitch, with Argentina’s World Cup future at stake, Lionel Messi – as if he didn’t need to already – confirmed his greatness once again.
As one Brazilian exclaimed in Buenos Aires, “Messi is E.T. He’s not from this world.”
With Argentina needing victory to confirm qualification to Russia after a campaign of chaos and calamity, he scored the 44th hat-trick of his career, with the third of the three goals among his very best.
Darting forward at full speed, the ball glued to his instep, Messi was barged onto his left side. Somehow he sustained enough balance to get a shot away, before falling to the turf, managing not only to keep it on target but provide enough lift to guide it perfectly over the arms of Ecuadorian goalkeeper Maximo Banguera and into the net. It was a finish a player standing perfectly still with no defensive attention would be hard-pressed to replicate.
That’s the beauty of how he plays. This may have been Messi’s 609th career goal but there is always something extra, an unseen gem yet to be unlocked that Messi treats us all to every now and then. At 31 he is still rewriting ideas of what it is to be a footballer.
As coach Jorge Sampaoli admitted, Argentina are lucky to have him. In the last 11 months the only other goalscorer for La Albiceleste in competitive games has been Rolf Feltscher, and he plays for Venezuela. Without him they are a rag-tag collection of average to outstanding individuals without any sense of collective identity. Such were the gaping holes in their formation in Quito, Messi was playing three positions.
In one instance he would be collecting possession as a right-sided midfielder; a quick one-two with a team-mate would then supplant him as a central playmaker; and by the end of the next phase of action he was getting on the end of a cross.
There is a school of thought that, such is his dominance over how Argentina play, their fortunes live and die on his shoulders too heavily. Messi is king, queen, knight, bishop and rook to the 10 other pawns cast in white and sky blue; stop Messi and it’s checkmate.
That would carry some weight if the team had managed to deliver in his absence but of the nine qualifiers Messi missed, Argentina managed just one victory.
Likewise, if he wasn’t producing, it could question the validity of relying so much on one man. But as Tuesday night showed, that opinion must be treated in hesitation, not a genuine process of thought to be mulled over.
However, it’s abundantly clear for Argentina to possess any kind of credible threat to Brazil, Germany or Spain next summer, they need more than Messi’s magistery.
The faults in Sampaoli’s squad are numerous: spoilt for choice in the final third, they have little defensive quality; the search for an international class full-back now stretches into a third World Cup; their midfield is cluttered with diligent ball carriers but none really able to provide any spark – the eternally-mercurial and frustrating Ever Banega the exception.
While Argentina will be there in the draw on December 1, far too many questions remain for Sampaoli to process all at once.
What constitutes his best front three or four? Does Gonzalo Higuain have an international future? Can he fit Paulo Dybala into this team? Can Banega string at least two good games together? Who is his best defensive midfielder? Does he have any defenders possessing a modicum of pace? Where have all of Argentina’s wide players gone?
Not only that, but at what stage can these individuals start replicating their club form for Argentina?
And that’s all on the surface, before we delve into tactical intricacies and team chemistry. Argentina won’t meet as a squad again until early November and mid-March after that.
Sampaoli is a coach whose methods are intrinsically linked to fostering a collective spirit: his Chile and Sevilla sides perfect examples of teams far greater than the sum of their parts. If, somehow, he can do that with Argentina’s weird mix of premier Rolls Royce machinery and second-hand throwaways, maybe, just maybe he can construct a World Cup winning side.
Or he can just refer back to E.T in his spaceship and Messi can try and reach his final frontier.
The Euro 2016 winners may have left it late, requiring a victory over Switzerland in Tuesday night’s final group match to avoid dropping into the play-offs.
But an own goal from Johan Djourou and Andre Silva’s strike ensured Ronaldo, fitness permitting, will appear at his fourth finals and an eighth straight major tournament in Russia next year.
The 32-year-old wrote on Twitter:
Great team effort! Thank you all for your support. Russia, here we come!!👍🏽🇵🇹 pic.twitter.com/cEPJWCDA2R
— Cristiano Ronaldo (@Cristiano) October 11, 2017
Ronaldo will be joined by Lionel Messi, world football’s other undisputed superstar, at the finals after Argentina beat Ecuador 3-1.
Yet while Messi almost single-handedly dragged his side to Russia with a sparkling hat-trick it certainly required a team effort from Portugal, as Ronaldo was far from his best in Lisbon.
That is no longer unknown territory for Fernando Santos’ side, however, following their 1-0 victory over France to become European champions last year.
Their talisman was reduced to willing them on from the sidelines after he was injured early on in the final in Paris.
Midfielder Bernardo Silva says the team will use that same mentality when they attempt to repeat their European success on the world stage.
“We knew we had to win and fortunately with the support of all the Portuguese we got the victory and the qualification for the World Cup,” the Manchester City man told the Portuguese football Federation’s website.
“Fernando Santos gives a lot of confidence to the players. We are now looking forward to a good campaign in the World Cup.
“We have entered every game to win, it is the strength that our coach and team-mates convey to us, and we know that when we believe and think in this way, we are closer to winning.
“As Portugal did in the European Championship, they went into all the matches to win, that’s what we’re going to do at the World Cup.
“We’re going to try to win the World Cup, not knowing if that can happen or not, but we’re going to play every game to win.”