World Cup (29)
World Cup qualifying, Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa - Ecuador 1 (Ibarra 1') Argentina 3 (Messi 11', 18', 62')
A magical Lionel Messi hat-trick carried Argentina to a 3-1 win over Ecuador on Tuesday and booked their place at next year's World Cup finals in Russia.
With Argentina facing the dire possibility of missing out on a World Cup for the first time since 1970, their brilliant captain delivered when it matter most with three goals in the rarefied air of Quito.
The twice World Cup winners finished third in the 10-team South American group, going through with Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia as the automatic qualifiers, while Peru grabbed a playoff place against Oceania champions New Zealand at the expense of Chile.
Messi had not been at his best in Argentina’s stuttering campaign and failed to score in their previous three drawn qualifiers, which had left them in sixth place and out of the qualifying berths for Russia heading into Tuesday's game.
A World Cup without Argentina seemed an even bigger possibility when Romario Ibarra put Ecuador ahead in the opening minute after he got the better of Javier Mascherano and beat Sergio Romero with a low shot.
But Argentina, who had managed only one previous win in Quito, in 2001, equalised 11 minutes later when Messi tapped home after a one-two with Angel Di Maria.
Messi then put Argentina ahead in the 20th minute, firing a superb shot past Maximo Banguera into the top corner, and completed his hat-trick just past the hour, shaking off three tired Ecuador defenders before lifting the ball over the advancing goalkeeper and into the net.
Messi, enjoying a little bit of extra space seldom afforded against rival South American defences, joined Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, his team mate at Barcelona, as the all-time joint top scorers in CONMEBOL qualifiers with 21 goals.
"Today Argentina took a great step forward," said coach Jorge Sampaoli.
“I hope that with the time to prepare that we’ll have, we can be competitive (in Russia) like we were today.”
While Sampaoli was delighted with his captain's performance, he said the side had to stop relying on him so much.
"We've got to fix it so not everything depends on Messi," he added.
World Cup qualifying Group B, Estadio da Luz - Portugal 2 (Djourou 41 og, Andre Silva 57) Switzerland 0
European champions Portugal secured their World Cup spot with a 2-0 win over Switzerland thanks to Johan Djourou's own goal and Andre Silva's 11th in 10 games.
Fernando Santos' side win Group B while Switzerland go into the play-offs despite winning nine of their 10 group games.
The game started slowly with Portugal dominating possession and Switzerland sitting back, looking to counter. But the visitors couldn't find the necessary quality in their passing, and on 41 minutes, Eliseu's superb low cross from the left was met by the stretching Joao Mario, who touched the ball against the retreating Djourou and into the net.
Portugal were more aggressive after half-time, and on 57 minutes extended their advantage, a lovely move ending with Andre Silva sliding home Bernardo Silva's cross.
Switzerland never seriously threatened to haul themselves back into things - Portugal were too technical and too streetwise to surrender their advantage. And though they will not travel to Russia as favourites, they have a settled, confident side, a solid defence, a reliable goalscorer and a genius; they are capable of beating anybody and will expect to mount a serious challenge.
Do Portugal need to change anything? Group B has been a breeze for the European champions. They lost their first game while still on honeymoon, but have won them all since, scoring 32 times in 10 games. But they faced compliant opponents, whereas in Russia they will not. So, do they keep doing what they do and assume will work, or look to find a more expansive style to combat the better teams? They proved here they can deliver some eye-catching moments when in the mood.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Joao Moutinho (Portugal): No one really excelled, but Moutinho kept his team ticking and played a crucial role in creating the killer second goal.
Switzerland: Sommer 7, Lichtensteiner 6, Schar 6, Djourou 5, Rodriguez 6, Xhaka 5, Freuler 5, Shaqiri 5, Dzemaili 5, Mehmedi 5, Seferovic 5. Subs: Zakaria 5, Embolo 6, Zuber 6.
Portugal: Rui Patricio 6, Cedric 6, Pepe 6, Fonte 6, Eliseu 7, Carvalho 6, Moutinho 7, Bernardo Silva 6, Joao Mario 6, Ronaldo 5, Andre Silva 7. Subs: Antunes 6, Andre Gomes 6, Danilo 6.
32’ - CHANCE! Ronaldo dribbles across the face of the box from left to right, trips over, and claims a foul. It's no such thing, but it distracts the defenders, so Moutinho is able to curve a pass with the outside of his boot into the path of Bernardo, inside the box on its left. He should go low to the far post but goes high to the near, and Sommer beats away.
41’ - GOAL! Portugal 1-0 Switzerland. Djourou own goal - Eliseu crosses brilliantly from the left and schar, sliding towards hiw own net can't get a touch. So Sommer comes out as Joao Mario lunges ... the attacker gets a flick, and Djourou can't get out of the road, knocking it home.
55’ - RONAL...NO! Portugal are playing better now, and Ronaldo picks out Bernardo on the right, accepts the return, and now in the D, goes with his right not his left and skews a drive high and wide.
57’ - GOAL! Portugal 2-0 Switzerland. Andre Silva scores - Portugal are going to Russia! And they've sealed it with a fine team goal, Cedrid finding Bernardo, who finds Moutinho just outside the box ... and Moutinho slides him back in, deep inside the box ... he crosses low, and Silva, seeing it through a crowd, manages to play the ball behind his standing leg by mistake, then maintains equilibrium to slide a finish into the unguarded net. That's 11 in 10 for him.
79’ - CHANCE! Portugal win a corner down the right, hit deep into the box; Djourou can only deflect it back inside, and Pepe doesn't connect properly with his shot. That was a good chance.
80’ - SELFISH... Ronaldo is in on goal! Sliding through at inside-left, he decides to show off by rounding Sommer, who stands up well and smothers the ball.
Andre Silva's nine goals in qualification puts him fourth in Europe.
Cristiano Ronaldo's 15 goals in qualification breaks Predrag's Mijatovic's record from the 1998 competition ... but so does Robert Lewandowski's 16. Ronaldo does, though, hold the record of 30 career World Cup qualifying goals, three ahead of Andriy Shevchenko, and has 33 career World Cup goals including finals - also a record.
Arjen Robben announced his retirement from the international game after scoring twice in the Netherlands' 2-0 win over Sweden.
Robben's double at the Amsterdam ArenA was not enough to help the Dutch qualify for the 2018 World Cup as Sweden secured a play-off place from Group A courtesy of a superior goal difference to Dick Advocaat's side.
The 33-year-old - who appeared in six major tournaments - played 96 times for his country, scoring 37 goals over 14 years.
"It's a good time to pass the torch to the next generation," he said.
The Dutch captain helped his country reach the World Cup final in 2010 where they lost 1-0 to Spain after extra-time before they finished third in Brazil three years ago.
But the Bayern Munich winger could not help his country reach the Euro 2016 finals or Russia in 2018 with the Dutch facing a six-year absence from tournament football if they qualify for Euro 2020.
Netherlands captain Arjen Robben has given up hope on the side advancing to the 2018 World Cup finals despite the side registering a 3-1 win at Belarus in their penultimate qualifier on Saturday.
The Dutch still have a mathematical chance of reaching Russia if they beat Sweden in Amsterdam on Tuesday but admit that the seven-goal victory margin needed to leapfrog their opponents is highly unlikely.
"It caused me a lot of pain, but unfortunately that is part of sport," said the Bayern Munich winger, who after 95 caps is edging ever closer to the end to his international career.
Saturday's result left the Dutch on 16 points from nine matches in Group A, three behind second-placed Sweden, who have a vastly superior goal difference of plus-19 compared to plus-six for the Netherlands.
Sweden's 8-0 home demolition of Luxembourg on Saturday was a crushing blow, said Robben. "We couldn't believe it was that much," he told Dutch television.
Sweden had completed their victory by the time the Netherlands took to the field in Borisov, where Robben scored one goal and made another in the victory.
"After the result in Sweden we could not do much more than come out with our chests out. But to win 8-0 in Belrus was never going to be realistic. And 7-0 at home against Sweden, that's not going to happen either.
"Obviously we must keep believing until the last minute but I had better say what everyone is thinking. It is not realistic to think we can beat Sweden with a big score. People had best leave their calculators at home."
As to his own future with the national team, the 33-year-old Robben said: "First Sweden and then we'll see."
Missing out on the World Cup continues a dramatic fall from grace after the Dutch were runners-up in South Africa in 2010 and third at the last tournament in Brazil.
They failed to qualify for the European Championship in France last year and now appear virtually certain of being absent for a second major tournament in succession.
Poland sealed their first World Cup spot since the 2006 tournament after an early onslaught and a late flourish, including a goal from the excellent Robert Lewandowski, gave them a 4-2 home win over Montenegro on Sunday.
The result left Poland top of Group E with 25 points from 10 games, five ahead of second-placed Denmark who sealed a playoff berth after a 1-1 home draw with Romania.
The Poles thrived on the selfless work of their record scorer Lewandowski, who netted one goal and had a hand in two more on Sunday after grabbing a hat-trick in Thursday's 6-1 away rout of Armenia.
Roared on by a packed national stadium in Warsaw awash with Poland's red-and-white colours, the home side brushed Montenegro aside in a fast and furious opening 16 minutes.
Midfielder Krzysztof Maczynski fired them ahead in the sixth minute with a crisp finish from 10 metres as a miscued Piotr Zielinski shot fell kindly for him, after Lewandowski started a sweeping move from midfield.
The Bayern Munich striker then set up Kamil Grosicki with a clever touch in the 16th minute and the winger fired home from 12 metres after good work by Zielinski, who shook off two Montenegrin defenders to thread the ball to Lewandowski.
Montenegro missed their best chance in the first half when Vladimir Jovovic fired over the bar from 10 metres after a defensive error.
Poland were content to keep possession in the second half but got a rude awakening as the visitors scored twice in five minutes to set up a nervy finish, with the Poles at that point needing at least a draw to go through.
Substitute Stefan Mugosa pulled one back with his first touch of the ball, a spectacular overhead kick in the 78th minute, before Zarko Tomasevic equalised when he took advantage of more sloppy defending.
The silenced home crowd erupted again as Lewandowski restored Poland's lead with an opportunist finish in the 85th minute and the home side romped to victory after Montenegro's Filip Stojkovic turned a Grosicki cross into his own net.
The frantic late spell also produced a pair of gilt-edged chances in stoppage time as Poland hit the woodwork and then saw visiting keeper Danijel Petkovic deny Maciej Makuszewski.
Europe's nine group winners qualify automatically for next year's 32-team tournament in Russia while the eight best runners-up enter a two-leg playoff for the remaining four berths.
Mohamed Salah scored with a last-gasp penalty to book Egypt a place in the World Cup finals for the first time in 28 years as they edged Congo 2-1 in their dramatic Group E qualifier on Sunday.
The Liverpool forward's two goals put Egypt four points clear with one match left in the preliminary campaign.
Salah had given his side a 63rd minute lead even though Egypt still looked tentative in a tense match with opponents who had yet to win a match at the bottom of the group.
A defensive blunder had let him in, to the relief of the home crowd, but Egypt's dreams threatened to turn into a nightmare when Arnold Bouka Moutou equalised, firing past 44-year-old goalkeeper Essam Al Hadary with three minutes left.
The home side, though, won a 95th minute penalty which Salah converted to secure the trip to Russia – Egypt's first appearance at the finals since 1990 in Italy.
World Cup Qualification, UEFA Group F, Sportni park Stozice - Slovenia 2 (Bezjak 52', 72') Scotland 2 (Griffiths 32', Snodgrass 88')
Scotland fell agonisingly short in their efforts to make the World Cup play-offs, conceding a first-half lead to draw 2-2 away to Slovenia, missing out on second place through goal difference.
Gordon Strachan's men needed a win to make sure of finishing second in Group F, with Slovakia beating Malta, but narrowly missed out despite a breathless finale in a remarkable qualification comeback over the past few games.
Gordon Strachan made a bold team selection, dropping James Forrest and James Morrison in favour of James McArthur and Chris Martin, opting for two up front. Scotland looked uncomfortable in their shape early on as Slovenia dominated possession, but the dynamic of the contest changed with a Leigh Griffiths goal after 32 minutes, with the Celtic striker finding the far corner with an excellent finish.
However, a double change at the break gave Slovenia renewed impetus, with the hosts equalising through substitute Bezjak, who headed a free-kick back across goal and into the far corner of Craig Gordon’s net.
And Slovenia took the lead after 72 minutes, with Bezjak once again finding the net. Robert Snodgrass found a late equaliser to set up a grandstand finish, but Scotland just couldn’t find the goal they so desperately needed, even after the sending off of Bostjan Cesar. Ultimately, this was another case of glorious failure.
TALKING POINT - What happened to Scotland in the second half?
At half-time, Scotland were in the perfect position. They hadn’t played especially well, but they had a 1-0 lead after Griffiths’ opener. From that point on, though, everything went wrong. Strachan set up his side too negatively, taking off Martin and throwing on Ikechi Anya after the equaliser. That robbed Scotland of an outlet, inviting yet more pressure on top of themselves that ultimately resulted in another Slovenia goal. When it mattered most, their tactics were all wrong.
MAN OF THE MATCH - Josip Ilicic (Slovenia)
He was identified as the danger man for Slovenia before kick off, and Josip Ilicic lived up to his billing. The playmaker was at the centre of everything well the hosts did, especially in the first half. Scotland didn’t know how to deal with him as he drifted between the lines of midfield and attack. Bezjak might have grabbed the goals, but Ilicic was the man who created them.
Slovenia - Oblak 6, Cesar 5, Ilicic 8, Kurtic 6, Matavz 5, Jokic 6, Mevlja 6, Rotman 7, Repas 6, Verbic 5, Struna 6. Subs - Bezjak 8, Skubic 5, Vetrih 5.
Scotland - Gordon 5, Tierney 6, Mulgrew 5, Berra 6, Robertson 6, D.Fletcher 7, McArthur 5, Bannan 5, Phillips 5, Martin 6, Griffiths 7. Subs - Anya 5, Snodgrass 6, S.Fletcher 5.
32’ GOAL! Slovenia 0-1 Scotland: Scotland have a crucial lead! It was an extremely tight angle for Griffiths, but he let the ball drop and angled a strike across the face of goal and into the far corner of the net.
42’ GRIFFITHS INJURY! This could be a real issue for Scotland. Griffiths appears to have picked up an injury and is hobbling over to the touchline to receive some treatment. Calf?
55’ GOAL! Slovenia 1-1 Scotland: Well, there's the equaliser and Scotland are going to have to do this the hard way. Bezjak got in behind the Scotland defence from a free-kick and headed past Gordon into the far corner.
72’ GOAL! Slovenia 2-1 Scotland: Is that the goal to finish off Scotland? The away side don't defend a corner kick well enough, with the ball played back to Bezjak. The sub made no mistake in passing into the net.
78’ FLETCHER SHOULD HAVE SCORED! That was the chance for Scotland to get back on level terms! The ball fell nicely to Fletcher eight yards out, but he sliced his effort over the bar.
88’ GOAL! Slovenia 2-2 Scotland: OUT OF NOWHERE! Scotland have scored a late equaliser, but they need another one! Snodgrass got on the end of it to prod high into the corner of the net.
92’ SENT OFF! I'm not entirely sure what's happened, but Cesar has been shown a straight red card.
Leigh Griffiths has been involved in seven goals in his last five internationals for Scotland (four goals, three assists).
Slovenia conceded a goal at home for the first time in this World Cup qualification campaign.
Cristiano Ronaldo saved Portugal’s blushes by coming of the substitutes' bench to score in their World Cup qualifier against Andorra.
After a goalless first half, the Real Madrid forward, who is one booking away from a suspension, stabbed home from close range to give his side the advantage in the 63rd minute.
Portugal then scored again through Andre Silva to seal the win after Danilo headed across to the far post.
It means the European Champions will face Switzerland in Lisbon on Tuesday to see which side from Group B will qualify for the finals automatically.
Switzerland, 5-2 winners over Hungary, lead with a maximum 27 points from nine games and need a draw while Portugal, on 24 but with a goal difference which is better by eight, will top the group if they win.
The winners of the nine European groups qualify directly for the World Cup and the best eight of the runners-up go into a playoff round for four more places. Whoever finishes second in Group B is assured of a playoff place.
N’Golo Kante suffered a suspected hamstring injury as France beat Bulgaria 1-0 in Sofia in their World Cup qualification match.
The central midfielder dealt Chelsea boss Antonio Conte a major blow after he was taken off with just 34 minutes on the clock, raising fears he could be out of action after the international break.
Chelsea are already without Alvaro Morata after he injured his hamstring against Manchester City, and Kante’s fellow midfielder Danny Drinkwater.
Chelsea travel to Selhurst Park next Saturday before Roma arrive at Stamford Bridge the following Wednesday for a Champions League match.
France guaranteed a play-off spot by beating Bulgaria 1-0 and will travel to Russia as group winners if they beat Belarus on Tuesday.
Costa Rica qualified for next year's World Cup finals after picking up the point they needed in a 1-1 draw with Honduras on Saturday.
The last-gasp draw means that Costa Rica, who reached the quarter-finals in 2014, join Mexico as the second representative from the North, Central American and Caribbean region (CONCACAF).
The top three teams qualify automatically for Russia with the fourth-placed side going into a playoff with a team from the Asian confederation.
A lethargic Costa Rica looked as if they were playing for a draw from the outset of a match held over from Friday due to torrential rain in the capital city.
Honduras, however, took the lead after 66 minutes when Eddie Hernandez powered home a header from nine yards out.
The home side were on the verge of missing out on the point they needed but grabbed the equaliser in the dying seconds when Waston headed home a cross from Bryan Ruiz.
In the remaining fixtures of the round, Honduras host Mexico on Tuesday, while Costa Rica go to Panama and the United States travel to bottom side Trinidad and Tobago.
The United States have 12 points and are favourites to take the third automatic spot but Panama and Honduras, both on 10, are still in with a chance.