Having made a dramatic debut as a substitute in the previous game against Mexican club Cruz Azul, where he scored the winning goal in the 94th minute, Messi was handed his first starting opportunity against an MLS club, and he didn’t disappoint.
The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner wasted no time in making his mark, opening the scoring in the eighth minute when a perfectly placed ball over the top from former Barcelona teammate, Sergio Busquets, sent him free. Messi’s low shot struck the post, but he quickly capitalised on the rebound, slotting the ball into the net with precision.
Messi continued to torment the Atlanta defence and doubled the lead in the 22nd minute, displaying a brilliant combination play with Taylor. Messi initiated the move, running at the back-pedalling Atlanta defenders before laying off the ball to Taylor, who smartly returned it to the 36-year-old maestro. Messi made no mistake in finishing the chance, increasing Inter Miami’s lead.
Facing a high defensive line and tasked with man-marking his compatriot, Argentine midfielder Santiago Sosa struggled to contain Messi’s brilliance, as the Barcelona legend orchestrated Miami’s attacking plays with immense efficiency.
Before the interval, Miami further extended their lead to 3-0 when Messi provided a delightful assist to Benjamin Cremaschi, who deftly flicked the ball to Taylor. The Finnish winger unleashed a powerful shot from a tight angle, finding the back of the net with ease.
Eight minutes into the second half, Atlanta’s defence was exposed on the break when a corner was cleared to Messi. The Argentine maestro sprinted from deep within his own half, releasing the ball to Taylor, who calmly slotted home a low shot off the inside of the far post.
Such was the magnitude of Miami’s lead that head coach Gerardo Martino took the opportunity to rest Busquets and Messi, with the latter being substituted in the 78th minute.
Despite their defeat, Atlanta had a chance for a consolation when they were awarded a penalty, but Messi’s compatriot Thiago Almada failed to convert as Miami goalkeeper Drew Callender pulled off an impressive save.
Taylor, who capitalised on the space created by Messi’s presence, received a well-deserved ovation as he left the field. The Finnish winger expressed his admiration for playing alongside the footballing legend, stating, “Every time Leo has the ball, we have a few players running in behind, and that creates loads of space for everyone else. He can do everything on the ball. He can keep it in tight spaces, and he makes the right decision 100 percent of the time.”
“Most of the time he’ll find one of his team-mates. He brings so much quality to the team, so much. I mean, he’s the best player in the world. This is what he does – he scores two goals, he scored last game, gets another assist. It’s a dream come true to play with him,” he said.
With two wins in the Leagues Cup group stage, Inter Miami sits atop their group, and with Messi fitting seamlessly into the squad, they are optimistic about their chances of clinching their first-ever trophy.
(With inputs from AFP)