Barcelona: 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 could not 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 their 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 his national side 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 their 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 set off for Paris St-Germain in August, Barcelona entered panic mode and scrambled to buy players to fill the gap left by the Brazil striker.
They had to break a club record for spending on a transfer to pry Ousmane Dembele from Borussia Dortmund, only for the France forward to tear a tendon in his left leg in just his third appearance.
But throughout the turmoil and turnover, Messi has responded by playing one of his best periods of football.
The 30-year-old 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 are the most serious test yet for Barcelona in the league.
Yet, despite their reputation as one of the toughest defensive sides in Spain, Atletico are one of Messi’s favourite victims.
Messi has scored against Atletico 27 times in 34 matches across all competitions, including 12 at their former stadium.
Atletico host Barcelona for the first time at their new Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
Atletico are also unbeaten in the league, although they lost to Chelsea 2-1 at home in the Champions League.
Barcelona lead second-place Sevilla by five points. Atletico are fourth and trail the pacesetters by six points.
Real Madrid are seven points adrift before visiting Getafe on Saturday.