BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Lionel Messi has willed Argentina into the World Cup.
Now he can exhale and get back to what he does best: Keeping Barcelona atop the Spanish league.
Just when the stakes couldn’t have been higher, Messi struck three goals to bring Argentina back for a 3-1 win at Ecuador on Tuesday and seize a last-minute ticket to Russia.
The star forward will have little chance to rest, however, with Barcelona counting on him to lead the team in its visit to Atletico Madrid on Saturday in the Spanish capital.
Messi has won a combined 17 trophies for Barcelona in the Champions League, Spanish league and Copa del Rey.
But his success with Barcelona has only increased the pressure on him to deliver silverware for Argentina. So far, he has lifted Argentina to only finals in the World Cup and Copa America.
Argentina struggled to produce goals throughout South American qualifying for the World Cup heading into the must-win match in Quito. And its chances looked grim when Ecuador scored in the first minute.
“It would’ve been crazy if Argentina didn’t play the World Cup,” Messi said after his hat trick.
When Neymar bolted for Paris Saint-Germain in August, Barcelona entered into panic mode and scrambled to buy players to fill the gap left by the Brazil striker.
But throughout the turmoil and turnover, Messi has responded by playing one of his best periods of football.
The 30-year-old Messi has 11 goals in seven league matches, including one four-goal outing and a treble. That has helped Barcelona outscore opponents 23-2 in the league.
He has also netted twice in the Champions League in wins over Juventus and Sporting Lisbon.
Atletico is the most serious test yet for Barcelona in the league.
Yet, despite its reputation as one of the toughest defensive sides in Spain, Atletico is one of Messi’s favorite victims.
Messi has scored against Atletico 27 times in 34 matches across all competitions, including 12 at its former stadium.
Atletico hosts Barcelona for the first time at its new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
Atletico is unbeaten in the league, although it lost to Chelsea 2-1 at home in the Champions League.
Barcelona leads second-place Sevilla by five points. Atletico is fourth and trails the pacesetter by six points.
Real Madrid is seven points adrift before visiting Getafe on Saturday.