Jorge Sampaoli said Lionel Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, football owed it to the five-time Ballon d'Or winner after he led the South American giants to Russia 2018.
Messi was Argentina's saviour on Tuesday, his stunning hat-trick securing a 3-1 victory over Ecuador and World Cup qualification, after Sampaoli's men had started the day outside of the CONMEBOL qualifying spots in sixth position.
Following three consecutive draws, two-time champions Argentina were in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1970, but captain Messi singlehandedly booked the country's ticket to Russia next year as they finished third.
"Football owed Messi the World Cup," Sampaoli said afterwards.
"I told the group: Messi did not owe the World Cup to Argentina, but football owed the World Cup to Messi.
"We should help him to be in a new World Cup. I was very excited to be in a squad with him."
The threat of failure loomed large for Argentina, who conceded after just 38 seconds at altitude in Quito - the fastest World Cup qualifying goal conceded by the visitors.
But Messi took centre stage from that point, scoring twice before half-time to keep Argentina's hopes alive.
After combining with Angel Di Maria for the equaliser and netting a thunderous strike to become the first player in South American qualifying to score 20 goals, Messi completed his hat-trick with a glorious chip just past the hour-mark.
Sampaoli added: "Argentina took a big step. I hope that with the preparation time we have, we can be competitive as we were today."