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Lionel Messi brings magic in Inter Miami’s 2024 opener: “He’s motivated” | MLSSoccer.com

Lionel Messi brings magic in Inter Miami’s 2024 opener: “He’s motivated” | MLSSoccer.com

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Lionel Messi, GOAT that he is, had already nutmegged an opponent, notched an assist, evaded an injured defender with an insane flick and even chatted up Oscar-winning actor Will Smith – all before halftime of Wednesday night’s 2024 MLS regular-season opener between Inter Miami CF and Real Salt Lake at Chase Stadium.

More Messi magic would follow in the second half, specifically a bursting, breakaway run and ensuing pass for debuting teammate Luis Suárez in the 83rd minute that led to Diego Gómez’s decider for a 2-0 Herons win.

Miami were far from perfect, particularly in defense. But their superstar No. 10 was in stellar form and got Miami’s highly-anticipated campaign off to a winning start.

“I saw him very loose, very fine, with a lot of speed,” head coach Gerardo Martino said of Messi post-match. “There’s something about him that doesn’t happen with other players: he can take the ball, even far away from goal, and he gives you the feeling the play will turn into a scoring chance.”

Sure enough, one of those scoring chances allowed Gómez to put the game away after RSL threatened to cancel out Robert Taylor’s 39th-minute opener – which also came off a Messi pass – numerous times throughout the second half.

“It makes me happy because he [Messi] evidently is doing well, he’s motivated,” Tata said. “But on top of that, physically he’s feeling good.”

Good enough to go the full 90 minutes and provide plenty of vintage Messi-only moments. Among the highlights: a nutmeg of rising RSL midfielder Diego Luna, a dangerous free kick into the upper 90 that was cleared out by a leaping Justen Glad and a brilliant self-pass over Andrew Brody as the injured defender writhed in pain near the edge of the box.

The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner could very well put in another demanding performance – and attract more Hollywood A-listers – Sunday night (9 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) when Miami visit LA Galaxy during MLS is Back weekend.

“I’m not thinking about making rotations or resting players yet,” Tata said about the possibility of sitting his stars early into the season. “We’ve just started competing.”

That said, Tata and his medical staff are keeping a close eye on midfielder Sergio Busquets, who’s still showing the effects of an ankle sprain suffered during the club’s preseason tour.

“I don’t think he’ll have any issues,” Martino said of the FC Barcelona legend, who was subbed off for Lawson Sunderland with five minutes remaining. “He started having discomfort in the second half and we took him off to avoid taking any risks.”

While Martino is pleased with Miami’s first official outing of 2024, he knows the team is still far from the finished product.

“We can’t get carried away,” Tata said. “It’s just one game that had two decidedly different halves. We have to stay as close as possible to what we did in the first half and get as far away as possible to what we did in the second.”

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