Lionel Messi came off the bench and scored as Inter Miami began their push for the Major League Soccer playoffs with a 2-0 win at New York Red Bulls on Saturday.
After a week in which Miami won the Leagues Cup and reached the final of the US Open Cup, Messi was left on the bench by coach Gerard “Tata” Martino but came into the game on the hour mark.
The Argentine World Cup winner had limited involvement after entering with former Barcelona team-mate Sergio Busquets but made his mark on his regular season debut with an 89th-minute goal.
Jordi Alba acrobatically hooked the ball into the box to Messi who twisted and turned then slipped a sublime pass with the outside of his foot to Benjamin Cremaschi whose low first-time cross was tapped in by the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner.
Messi has now scored 11 goals in nine appearances in all competitions since joining Inter Miami.
“He’s unbelievable, every day it’s something new, on and off the field,” said Miami’s 19-year-old defender Noah Allen.
“He’s an amazing person to play with and I am so blessed to play with him.”
Martino had indicated that several of his players needed a break after an intense run of eight games within a month and stuck to his word with his team selection, to the disappointment of the capacity crowd at Red Bull Arena.
There were chants of ‘We want Messi’ at regular stages throughout the game which was also shown on a giant screen in Times Square.
A makeshift Miami had taken the lead in the 37th minute when Noah Allen played in a cross from the left and Paraguayan Diego Gomez was given time to turn and then slot home a left-foot effort.
Miami keeper Drake Callender had to make a series of saves to keep his side in the lead but with Red Bull pressure mounting, Martino opted to bring on his star man and the momentum of the game inevitably shifted.
The win lifts Miami off the bottom of the Eastern Conference and reduces the gap to the last playoff sport to 11 points with 11 games remaining.
Martino defended his decision to start his 36-year-old compatriot on the bench despite the hopes of the crowd.
“I understand the desire of the people who want him to play, this will happen everywhere we go,” he said.
“But as the coach, I cannot be guided by those fans’ desires. My job is to make sure Leo takes care of himself,” he said.
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