Lionel Messi fulfills the promise of a dazzling debut to mark the most anticipated match in MLS in 16 years – even from the bench – but is his magic enough to perform the miracle Inter Miami needs to make the playoffs?

  • Lionel Messi marked his MLS debut with a stunning goal in the 89th minute
  • The New Jersey crowd was finally rewarded as the Argentine came off the bench
  • provides all the latest international sports news

Everyone held up their side of the bargain. Everyone did their bit to mark the most anticipated match in Major League Soccer for 16 years.

Supporters paid through the nose for their seat at the show; Times Square reserved one of its giant screens to broadcast the action live; street sellers stocked up on hats and jerseys and fridge magnets. MLS, Apple and Adidas had all banged their heads together to make nights like this possible. Even New York Red Bulls rolled out the red carpet. For this visit of Inter Miami, the club opened the stadium early and turned up the volume with fireworks and a show by Run DMC.

The only problem? Tata Martino was in no mood for a party. The Miami manager’s English is patchy at best but the chants which swept around Red Bull Arena needed no translation. ‘We want Messi,’ rang out from the sixth minute until shortly before the hour mark, when a record crowd finally got their wish and the 36-year-old emerged from the substitutes’ bench for his MLS debut.

Messi then made them wait a little longer – his first pass went astray; a free-kick clattered into the wall; most of his 30-minute cameo was played at walking pace.

All of the magic and all of his late heroics must end at some point and until the 89th minute it seemed this would be the night when normality reigned.

Lionel Messi delivered once again for Inter Miami in its 2-0 win over New York Red Bulls

The World Cup winner scored on his MLS debut Saturday night to double Miami’s lead

Diego Gomez had opened the scoring for Tata Martino’s side with Messi on the bench

But no. The show goes on and Miami’s holy trinity continue to sprinkle American soccer with stardust. Here, they combined to seal a win which takes Martino’s side off the foot of the Eastern Conference.

Sergio Busquets, also on from the bench, stroked a pass towards Jordi Alba. Somehow, the left back threw himself into the air and flicked the ball into the feet of Messi. He did the rest. Messi beat one defender, he drew two more and then picked out a pass that only he could see. Fellow substitute Benjamin Cremaschi ran on to it before returning the favor, allowing Messi to stroke the ball into an empty net and cap a 2-0 victory with a dash of genius.

Suddenly, everyone could head home happy. Suddenly a night that threatened to fizzle out ended with a sparkle and that familiar chant.

Martino had hinted that Messi would need a break after a whirlwind first month in Miami. Over 36 days, the 36-year-old had played eight matches – amassing 10 goals, one trophy and more than 700 minutes of game time. Martino understood what he was supposed to do. He just didn’t care for romance or show. Well, not enough at least to risk Messi from the start. Not when the 36-year-old was approaching his physical ‘limit’.

No matter that some tickets were being flogged for more than $20,000. No matter that MLS had been waiting for a night this momentous since David Beckham’s debut for LA Galaxy back in 2007. No matter that Red Bull Arena was awash with pink, and the blue and white of Argentina. No matter that Inter Miami’s hopes of reaching the playoffs hung by a thread.

Messi didn’t even warm-up on the field. Instead, when eyes were trained elsewhere, he shuffled out of the tunnel to take his place on the bench. Of Martino’s new generals, only Alba started this win that might kickstart a late dash for the postseason.

Pity Leonardo Campana. A deafening din greeted the news that his night was done. He made way for Messi and Busquets was on moments after.

As ever, the 36-year-old burst to life once the ball was at his feet – much like this stadium. His every touch sent another surge around this stands. A new era of MLS was finally underway and even the home fans were here to embrace it.

Six weeks had passed since Inter Miami last played a league game. That night, Martino’s team travelled to St Louis City – just hours after Messi’s move was made official.

Miami was beaten 3-0. It was Martino’s first game in charge and it meant the team had gone 11 MLS matches without victory. Since then, everything has changed and yet everything has stayed the same.

The midfielder fired home the opener past Red Bulls goalkeeper Carlos Miguel Coronel

Tata Martino finally gave the New Jersey crowd what it wanted bringing Messi off the bench

Fellow substitute Benjamin Cremaschi (second left) provided the assist for Messi

Miami still sat bottom of the Eastern Conference by the time the team bus rolled into Harrison last night. Its points tally (18) was still the lowest of any side in MLS.

The challenge of reaching the playoffs remains a monumental one.

All we needed to find out? Whether that glorious mid-season pause – which saw Messi, Busquets and Alba arrive in Florida and lead Miami to Leagues Cup victory – was a brief break from reality or the start of a new normal. There had certainly been a shift within the locker room. Now a novel phenomenon had taken hold: players turned up to matches believing they would win. The bookmakers had been persuaded too. Despite having the worst record in the league, Miami is third favorites to win the MLS Cup.

Just to reach the playoffs, Martino’s side had to make up the 14-point deficit with only 12 matches remaining. This marked step one but it will still require a miracle – even for a team who has spent weeks in dreamland.

Not that many supporters here cared for the bigger picture.

Fans hadn’t emptied their pockets to catch a glimpse of Miami’s title charge.

Vendors weren’t flogging jerseys and bucket hats in tribute to the MLS playoff race.

There was only name on everyone’s lips and most supporters’ shirts. Even Red Bulls academy players were filmed chanting for Messi.

The 36-year-old and former Barcelona teammate Sergio Busquets both started on the bench

No wonder, then, that the stadium announcer in this corner of New Jersey waited until a few minutes before kick-off to confirm the bad news: the wait to see the World Cup winner in MLS would go on.

That didn’t prevent the crowd from singing for Messi throughout. It didn’t stop supporters rising to their feet – and ratcheting up the noise – when he and the rest of Martino’s substitutes began to warm-up shortly after half time.

By then, Miami led through Diego Gomez’s first-half goal. But this match was a sideshow even before Messi wandered down the touchline and waved to the crowd while going through the motions.

He barely moved out of first gear after coming on, either. But that didn’t stop him stealing the show once more.

By news24h

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