Lionel Messi returns to training, Miami take show on the road to Atlanta

Messi vs. atlanta

As Inter Miami CF look to continue their Audi MLS Cup Playoffs push with a Matchday 32 bout at Atlanta United, the availability of Lionel Messi is just one of many storylines surrounding the much-anticipated Eastern Conference clash.

Messi has resumed training with the club after returning from a well-traveled stint on international duty with Argentina, which would seem to bode well for his chances of featuring in the match, though head coach Tata Martino stopped short of confirming as much when discussing Messi's status on Friday. He exited early from Argentina's World Cup qualifying win over Ecuador after hitting a trademark free-kick golazo, before traveling but getting left out of the matchday squad for last Tuesday's subsequent trip to Bolivia.

"He’s fine, but we’re going to wait until after the training session before making a definitive decision,” Martino said. "Obviously we’ll be very careful because we’re aware of the amount of important games awaiting us in the short term, but our idea is not to injure Leo or any other player, so we’ll have discussions on a day-to-day basis and see how they feel."

Martino, Josef return to the Benz

Aside from the potential of Messi's debut at one of the league's most hostile venues, the fixture will also mark homecomings for both Martino and Inter Miami striker Josef Martínez, both key figures in Atlanta United's early days in MLS that saw them take the league by storm, capturing an MLS Cup title in 2018.

The Five Stripes are expecting a sold-out crowd at the 70,000-seat Mercedez-Benz Stadium, with Martino acknowledging the emotions that will accompany his return to his initial MLS stomping grounds.

"First of all, playing at Mercedez-Benz [Stadium], which is a wonderful stadium, you can imagine how I’m feeling," the Argentine manager said. "And then, the people of Atlanta are also wonderful. I hope to enjoy tomorrow’s game."

Settling the score

For Atlanta United, it will be their second crack at playing against Inter Miami's super-charged lineup that still has yet to lose a match across all competitions since the arrivals of Messi, along with former FC Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.

The first matchup didn't go as planned, with Inter Miami cruising to a 4-0 victory in the Leagues Cup group stage play at DRV PNK Stadium back on July 25, powered by a Messi brace. With the Five Stripes sitting sixth in the East with 42 points (11W-8L-9D record), goalkeeper Brad Guzan said this rematch represents a golden opportunity to both climb the table and accrue momentum during the stretch run.

"We need to make sure that we're willing to sacrifice and give everything. Because when we played them the first time, we weren't there," Guzan acknowledged, before adding: "Saturday has a chance to be one of those moments that, you know, after X amount of weeks down the road, we look back and say, 'Oh, that Miami game at home was a big night for us.' And so that's what we're looking forward to.

“We need to now try and finish as high as we can, hopefully to find ourselves in a place where we can be the home team in terms of playoffs and whatnot. And so that's our aim. And our aim is to approach these last six games with a finals mentality.”

Atlanta head coach Gonzalo Pineda said he's fully preparing as if his side will be facing Messi again, expressing confidence they'll be better equipped to manage the occasion with the boost of several roster additions since that matchup.

"I would say that we have to be collectively better," said Pineda. "Have the ball more than anyone else, that’s the best way to defend for me. We know how difficult it can be if we allow Messi a lot of time and space a lot of times, so we just have to minimize the danger with reducing the space for him and reducing the amount of passes he can make. So, that’s the approach.

"I’m actually quite happy about this stage and this moment with Messi, and it’s a big game, and it’s going to be a good challenge for sure," he added. "But I think it’s going to motivate the players very, very good."