Lionel Messi hat-trick sends Argentina through to the World Cup 2018

Argentina are going to the World Cup in Russia next year thanks to a superb Lionel Messi hat-trick, as the Albiceleste defeated Ecuador 3-1. Elsewhere, Peru pipped Chile to fifth in the South American qualifying group.

Lionel Messi, the world's most coveted football star, will be at next year's World Cup in Russia after all. The Argentinian striker netted a stunning hat-trick to see off a hard-fighting Ecuador side in Quito on Tuesday night. 

Star-studded Argentina went into their last game in South America's World Cup qualifying group knowing that nothing less than a win would see them qualify for next summer's showcase tournament.

The two-time World Cup winners had endured a dismal qualification campaign going into Tuesday's clash, having won just six of their 17 qualification matches.

They looked to have carried their rotten form with them to Quito, falling behind after just 38 seconds as Ecuador's Romario Ibarra thumped a shot past Argentine keeper Sergio Romero from the edge of the box. At that point, the Albiceleste would have finished sixth in the 10-nation group and missed out on the World Cup for the first time since 1970.

Messi drives his second goal of the night into the roof of the net.

However, Argentine captain Lionel Messi stepped up, netting Argentina's equalizer after 12 minutes by stabbing home a cross from Angel Di Maria.

Nine minutes later, he got his second, dodging a limp challenge as he raced towards the goal and driving the ball past the Ecuadorian keeper at the near post.

Messi saved his best for last when he grabbed his and Argentina's third goal of the evening. Cutting onto a loose ball half-way in the opposition's side of the field, Argentina's number 10 darted towards the goal before beautifully chipping the ball over the goalkeeper.

Panic over — Argentina were heading to Russia and they knew it. Ecuador, who were already eliminated, posed little threat after Messi completed his one-man show.

Chile's Jorge Valdivia holds his head as his underperforming side slumped to a 3-0 defeat against Brazil.

Peru through to play-offs as Chile's World Cup dream dashed

Chile, the reigning Copa America champions, failed to qualify for next summer's tournament after going down 3-0 in Brazil. Paulinho grabbed the first for the Little Canaries before Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus scored a brace.

That meant Peru finished the group in fifth place on goal difference, securing a play-off against Oceania representative New Zealand. They drew 1-1 with Colombia on Tuesday and if they come out on top against the Kiwis, they'll play their first World Cup tournament since 1982. 

Other matches across the continent saw Venezuela win 1-0 in Paraguay and Uruguay beat Bolivia 4-2.

Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Colombia all qualify automatically for the next year's tournament.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Brazil

Brazil have never failed to qualify for a World Cup in 21 attempts and have already secured top spot in South American qualification thanks to Neymar (pictured) and co. They have also won the World Cup five times – more than any other nation - and will be spearheaded by Paris Saint-Germain superstar Neymar as they aim to claim an unprecedented sixth.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Spain

The 2010 World Cup winners and 2008 and 2012 European Champions booked their ticket to Russia thanks to a 3-0 victory over Albania – and thanks to Macedonia's draw against Italy on Friday. Their nine qualifying games so far have seen them rack up a goal difference of 32. Bayern Munich midfielder Thiago picked up an ankle injury in their latest game but is expected to be a key player next summer.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

France

Euro 2016 finalists France have no shortage of star power and comfortably topped the same Group A that eliminated the Netherlands from the competition. Joachim Löw recently called the French an obvious rival as Germany seek to defend their title. Anyone who remembers Manuel Neuer's 2014 quarterfinal heroics in a 1-0 win would be hard pressed to argue.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Portugal

Despite a rocky road to qualification, Cristiano Ronaldo will go to the ball in Russia. Portugal sealed an automatic spot at Switzerland's expense on Tuesday, beating the Swiss 2-0. Aged 32, it's conceivable that Russia could be Ronaldo's last World Cup, after winning Euro 2016 with his country.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Iceland

England's Euro 2016 vanquishers book their spot to a second consecutive major international tournament. So get ready for more viking clapping and cheering from the stands in Russia. Gylfi Sigurdsson, left, remains Iceland's most technically gifted player, but he has a competent crew backing him up. Iceland won Group I outright, leaving Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey in their wake.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Serbia

Serbia topped Group D with 21 points, beating Georgia in the decisive final group game to book a World Cup return following their 2010 appearance. This prompted a giant team celebration, and tears from star midfielder Nemanja Matic of Manchester United. The Republic of Ireland missed out by just two points, and will have to face a playoff to reach Russia.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Nigeria

The Super Eagles became the first African side to qualify after a strike from Alex Iwobi (pictured) against Zambia on Saturday ensured they topped group B. The Arsenal man is one of six Premier League players in the current squad but, despite winning it in 2013, Nigeria have failed to qualify for the last two African Cup of Nations tournaments. Russia will be their seventh finals appearance.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Japan

Japan qualified for the World Cup in Russia by topping group B in Asia ahead of Saudi Arabia and Australia. It will only be their sixth appearance at the finals where they have never progressed beyond the last 16, going out at that stage in 2002 and 2010. In Shinji Kagawa, Yuya Osako and Yoshinori Muto, there is plenty of Bundesliga interest.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Germany

A serene stroll through a straightforward qualifying group capped a strong 2017 for the reigning champions. Wins at the Confederations Cup and under-21 Euros showed the depth in the German game and they will enter the tournament among the favorites once again. Timo Werner looks like the answer to the longstanding striker issue, while there are a wealth of options elsewhere.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Costa Rica

A dramatic injury time header from Kendall Watson secured a fourth qualification out of the last five for Costa Rica on Saturday. The Central American nation will look back fondly on a pair of convincing wins over the United States of America (4-0 and 2-0) that helped them finish second, behind Mexico. Russia will be their fifth finals appearance, with a quarterfinal in 2014 their best showing.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Mexico

Mexico have qualified for their sixteenth World Cup, coming top of the CONCACAF qualification ahead of Costa Rica and the United States. The Mexicans reached the quarter-finals in 1970 and 1986. They are likely to be reliant on former Bayer Leverkusen frontman Chicharito (front), who now plies his goal poaching trade in the Premier League, once again.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Iran

The winners of Asian Group A were the third team to book their ticket to Russia, after Brazil and the hosts. Under the stewardship of former Real Madrid boss Carlos Queiroz (center), the team set a new qualifying record when they went 12 games without conceding a goal before a 2-2 draw against Syria in their final match. It will be their fifth World Cup.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

England

Despite an unbeaten record in World Cup qualifiers that stretches back eight years and 38 games, all is not rosy in England’s garden. A woeful Euro 2016, followed by the one game reign of Sam Allardyce has left many disillusioned. But the 1966 winners are there for the a fifth successive tornament and in Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane (pictured) and Raheem Sterling, they have some talented forwards.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Saudi Arabia

A strong home record just about got the Green Falcons through to a fifth World Cup. Despite that, former Argentina coach Edgardo Bauza recently took over from Dutchman Bert van Marwijk just days after their qualification was sealed with a 1-0 home win over Japan. Germany fans will have happy memories of the Saudis at World Cup – they beat them 8-0 in their opening game of the 2002 tournament.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Russia

Russia qualified for the tournament automatically as hosts and will making their 11th appearance at a World Cup. They failed to progress from their group during the Confederations Cup in the summer, losing to Portugal and Mexico despite beating New Zealand. Their most recent match saw them defeat South Korea 4-2 in a friendly in Moscow on Saturday.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

South Korea

Another early qualifier, South Korea reached their tenth global showpiece in somewhat underwhelming fashion, with a 0-0 in Uzbekistan. The home semifinalists in 2002 have labored a little in qualifying, losing 3 of their 10 games and scoring just 11 goals. With a largely Asian-based squad, South Korea don’t have the stars of previous years but Tottenham’s Son Heung-min is a threat.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Belgium

With a wealth of attacking talent including Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Dries Mertens (left), Belgium stormed their way through group G with two games to spare. After making the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup – their best ever showing -the Red Devils were disappointing in Euro 2016, tamely exiting to Wales in the last eight. More will be expected in Russia.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Egypt

Egypt have qualified for the World Cup for the first time since 1990, and they couldn't have left it any later against Congo. The Pharaohs needed victory in Alexandria and an injury-time penalty by Mo Salah was effectively the last kick of the game, ensuring a 2-1 win and triggering wild scenes of celebration on the field and in the country's capital, Cairo.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Poland

Poland sealed their first World Cup spot since 2006 after an early onslaught and a late flurry, with a goal from the impressive Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski, the top European goalscorer in World Cup 2018 qualifying, ensuring a 4-2 home win over Montenegro. Despite the scoreline, the visitors made it a nervy affair having drawn level to 2-2 after being 2-0 down.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Argentina

"I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi," were the words of Argentina coach Jorge Sampaoli after a Lionel Messi hat-trick against Ecuador - the 44th of his career - ensured Argentina reached the World Cup finals. They made their fans sweat by leaving it to the last game, but the game's showpiece will have its star attraction there.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Panama

Panama are in their first World Cup, qualifying ahead of the USA. After missing out on qualifying for the last World Cup after conceding two goals in stoppage time against the US in 2013, the world's 131st most populous nation was determined not to miss out this time around. Gabriel Torres sealed qualification with an 87th-minute header against Costa Rica, which appeared not to cross the line.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Colombia

The star of the last World Cup, James Rodriguez, will get another chance to show his talent on the international stage after Colombia qualified for Russia with a 1-1 draw against Peru, who made the play-offs. Bayern Munich's Rodriguez put Colombia in front in the 56th minute and even a Peru equalizer couldn't deny Colombia their place.

World Cup 2018: The teams who have already made it

Uruguay

Uruguay, the first ever hosts and winners of the World Cup, will make their 13th appearance at the event. Luis Suarez scored twice as they sealed automatic qualification with a 4-2 win over Bolivia. Uruguay have been accused of having an ageing team, but coach Oscar Tabarez has successfully integrated some younger players and, as in 2010 and 2014, they will be a team no team wants to face.