Messi, Suarez pull Inter Miami out of giant hole in their ‘most important tournament’

The CONCACAF Champions Cup is far from the most glamorous soccer competition. But for Lionel Messi, in his first full year at Inter Miami, it’s probably the most significant. And on Thursday night, it dealt Messi and friends their first real blows of 2024. After 46 minutes, it had them in a giant hole, down 2-0 in Nashville.

But Messi and Luis Suarez lifted Inter up and out of that hole, to a dramatic 2-2 draw in this Round of 16 first leg.

Messi did so with one devastating sweep of his left boot.

Suarez followed with a stoppage-time header, a second all-important away goal, which will send Inter back to South Florida as the clear favorite in next week’s second leg.

The home-and-home series will be decided on aggregate, over 180 minutes. But Nashville, an emerging Messi nemesis, needed only four minutes to put a scare into Major League Soccer’s glamor club.

The hosts stunned Miami before the tournament’s significance could even be explored, before Messi even broke a sweat. They sliced through a new-look Inter midfield. Shaq Moore teed up Jacob Shaffelburg for an emphatic finish.

For most of the first half, they also stuffed Messi. And less than a minute into the second, Shaffelburg, a mulleted Canadian winger, stuffed Miami deeper into the hole.

He tip-toed inside on his right foot, and picked out the top corner.

So here Inter Miami was, in a yellow cauldron of noise, staring down defeat in the one competition where it can’t afford one.

The Champions Cup isn’t just a battle for regional supremacy, à la the UEFA Champions League. The 2024 edition offers one last ticket to the inaugural 32-team Club World Cup, which is coming to the United States next summer, and in which Inter Miami desperately wants a spot.

Its grandest global ambitions, in many ways, depend on that 2025 tournament, the only Club World Cup that will occur with Messi under contract. So the route to it is seemingly Miami’s 2024 priority. They will try to repeat as Leagues Cup champs. They know they must make the MLS playoffs. But those are distant concerns. Their pressing one is what head coach Tata Martino recently called “the great challenge that is the ConcaChampions.”

“It seems to me that, because of the prize, that is probably the most important tournament that we have to play in,” Martino said prior to the season. “And it is also a different tournament from the league. The league is so long that it allows you to make the odd mistake. The short tournaments and head-to-head matches allow for few or almost no errors.”

But here they were, making errors, struggling to break down a resolute Nashville defense.

They were bossing the ball, but not the game.

They needed rescuing. And Messi answered the urgent call.

His top-of-the-box curler framed an intriguing second half. At 2-1 down, Inter might have been just fine heading back home for Leg 2. Messi, Suarez and an army of subs nonetheless pushed for an equalizer.

Their push almost backfired. Messi took studs to the shin, and narrowly avoided an awful injury. Moore scored what appeared to be a third Nashville goal, but VAR swooped in with a marginal offside call.

And finally, in the 95th minute, Suarez knifed through Nashville defenders for the second goal he so craved.

He and Miami will enter next Wednesday’s second leg with their heads firmly above ground, their eyes on the quarterfinals, where Mexican giant Monterrey might be waiting. Tigres or Columbus could be the semifinal opponent. The path to the “prize,” as Martino said, is still long.

But any path is traversable when two of a generation’s greatest attackers firing on all cylinders.

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