Who else was going to break the deadlock?
World champions Argentina defeated Ecuador 1-0 in the first match of the South American World Cup 2026 qualifiers in Buenos Aires on Thursday night and the victory came from a familiar source: the one and only Lionel Messi.
As the clock ticked down, the United States' hottest property came up with a magical free kick to extend Argentina's celebrations in the official World Cup title opener against Ecuador.
The 80,000 capacity crowd at River Plate's Monumental in Buenos Aires imagined the end: the Inter Miami superstar placed the ball in and the murmur turned to cheers as his soft shot left goalkeeper Hernan Galindez unresponsive to make it 1-0 in the 78th minute.
With the goal, Messi drew level with former Barcelona teammate Luis Suárez of Uruguay as the all-time leading scorers in the South American qualifiers, both with 29 goals.
Thanks to Messi, La Albicleste have got off on the right start in the always hotly contested regional qualifiers. Argentina are among the favourites to win the group – six teams will qualify directly for the new look 48-team tournament in 2026.
Messi, who led Argentina to their third World Cup triumph in Qatar in December, has yet to confirm whether he will continue with his national side all the way to 2026, but he showed his importance yet again with the breakthrough in what had threatened to be a frustrating night for Lionel Scaloni's team.
Lautaro Martínez won a free-kick in a central area in the 78th minute, just outside the Ecuador penalty area and Messi his set piece executed to perfection.
The Albiceleste had dominated possession against an Ecuador side which defended in numbers and limited their attacks to the occasional break on the counter.
The first opening of the game fell to Messi in the 16th minute when he was found on the edge of the box but put his side-foot effort wide of the post.
Just before the break, Lautaro Martínez went closer when he slid in to meet a Rodrigo De Paul and his shot struck the post.
Messi worked himself an opening in the 69th minute but his low shot was weakly struck and was comfortably dealt with by Galindez.
After the captain broke the deadlock, bringing the crowd to their feets, it was smooth sailing for Argentina.
De Paul, who was excellent throughout, dribbled across from the right setting up substitute Ángel Di María but his effort was just wide.
Then De Paul brought a fine save out of Galindez near the end with a close-range blast at the near post.
Soon after, the referee blew the whistle, bringing play to a close and the crowd rose to applaud their world champions.
"Ecuador showed they have very good players, that they are physically strong and that they are clear about what they do," Messi said in a post-match interview.
"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," said the seven-times Ballon D'Or winner.
First test over. In the second matchday, to be played next Tuesday, Argentina will visit Bolivia in La Paz (3,600 metres altitude), a tricky test.
Messi, of course, is used to reaching great heights.
South American qualifiers – World Cup-2026
Argentina - Ecuador 1 - 0
Stadium: Monumental (Buenos Aires)
Referee: Wilmar Roldan (Colombia)
Goals: Messi (77)
Yellow cards: Argentina: Paredes (81); Ecuador: Cifuentes (60)
Argentina: Emiliano Martinez - Nahuel Molina, Cristian Romero, Nicolas Otamendi and Nicolas Tagliafico - Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez and Alexis Mac Allister (Leandro Paredes, 76) - Lionel Messi (Exequiel Palacios, 88), Lautaro Martinez (Julian Alvarez, 76) and Nicolas Gonzalez (Angel Di Maria, 61). Coach: Lionel Scaloni.
Ecuador: Hernán Galíndez - José Hurtado (Ángel Mena, 81), Félix Torres (Angelo Preciado, 81), Robert Arboleda, William Pacho and Pervis Estupiñán - José Cifuentes (Julio Ortiz, 67), Carlos Gruezo and Moisés Caicedo - Gonzalo Plata (Kevin Rodríguez, 67) and Enner Valencia. Coach: Félix Sánchez.