Lionel Messi magic propels Argentina in 2026 World Cup qualifying

World champions unconvincing in victory over Ecuador

Lionel Messi of Argentina celebrates scoring in a 2026 World Cup qualifier against Ecuador in Buenos Aires. EPA
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Lionel Messi was at his sublime best again as his second-half goal gave Argentina a 1-0 home win over Ecuador on Thursday to get their 2026 World Cup qualifying campaign off the mark.

World Cup winners Argentina were dominant in possession but frustrated in attack as they struggled to make the breakthrough.

Captain Messi, however, continued the excellent form than has seen him dominate at Inter Miami as he scored from a free kick after 77 minutes.

A trademark, curling free-kick from Messi sealed the result.

Messi has yet to confirm whether he will continue with his national side all the way to 2026, but he showed how important he still is for his national team.

"Ecuador showed they have very good players, that they are physically strong and that they are clear about what they do," Messi said after the match.

"We know that in every game we have to give one hundred percent to pull it off. But we showed that this group will not relax beyond what they achieved, which is something historic and extraordinary," he added.

"We have to be aware that we enjoyed everything a lot, but what we did is over. We have to look ahead.

"Everyone always wants to beat Argentina and even more so now that we are the world champions. We can't relax, we have to improve on what we've been doing."

Messi's goal also tied him with Luis Suarez of Uruguay as the all-time top scorer in the South American qualifying competition with 29.

"It's a pleasure for me that we are both there," said Messi, who has now scored 104 international goals. "Given what the qualifiers mean for us in South American football, it's a very nice thing for both of us."

Argentina will next play at Bolivia on Tuesday.

In other qualifiers, Paraguay drew 0-0 with Peru while Colombia claimed a 1-0 home win over Venezuela.

Updated: September 08, 2023, 6:39 AM