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We can’t relax, says Lionel Messi after his free kick gives Argentina a win over Ecuador in qualifier

BUENOS AIRES – Lionel Messi has warned Argentina not to take their foot off the gas, after his trademark, curling free kick got the world champions off to a winning start in their World Cup qualifying campaign on Thursday with a 1-0 victory at home against Ecuador.

Colombia also beat Venezuela 1-0, while 10-man Peru held on for a 0-0 draw in Paraguay as the long journey of South American qualifying for the 2026 World Cup got under way.

“We played against a great team, with good players and physically strong,” Messi said.

“Everyone always wants to beat Argentina and even more so now that we are the world champions. We can’t relax, we have to improve on what we’ve been doing.

“We know that in every game we have to give 100 per cent to pull it off. The objective is to qualify for the World Cup again. We really enjoyed what we did, but we have to look ahead.”

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 Martinez won a free kick in a central area in the 78th minute, just outside the Ecuador penalty area and Messi executed to perfection with his effort floating over the wall and dipping perfectly to beat the stationary Hernan Galindez.

With the goal, he drew level with former Barcelona teammate Luis Suarez of Uruguay as the all-time leading scorer in the South American qualifiers. Both have 29 goals.

“It’s a pleasure for me that we are both there,” said Messi, who has now scored 104 international goals.

“Given what the qualifiers mean for us in South American football, it’s a very nice thing for both of us.”

The 80,000 crowd in the Estadio Monumental were brought to their feet by the goal and from then on, it was smooth sailing for Argentina, who will next travel to take on Bolivia on Tuesday.

Scaloni, meanwhile, said that he was proud to see his side improve massively during his tenure.

“When I started, I didn’t know that I was going to be here for five years,” said the 45-year-old former player.

“There were difficult moments but you go on improving with experience and matches.

“I’m proud of the match that the boys played. It was played to the limit as a qualifying match has to be played.” AFP, REUTERS

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