National Writer: Charles Boehm

Inter Miami saved by "genius" of vintage Lionel Messi & Jordi Alba combo


The LA Galaxy had Inter Miami CF dead to rights.

The Gs looked like a team reborn in their 2024 season opener Sunday night, showing collective tenacity and intelligence as they stifled Lionel Messi & Co. for long periods before a vibrant, record-breaking crowd at Dignity Health Sports Park.

Riqui Puig was his best self, effervescently dynamic and influential with both his distribution and his work rate. LA’s pricey new signings Joseph Paintsil, Gabriel Pec and Miki Yamane were bright and aggressive. Messi was being shadowed, and clearly annoyed, by the tenacious Edwin Cerrillo, as the Herons looked every bit like a veteran team that had played in midweek, then jetted across the continent to play the identical starting XI again four days later.

The expected-goals tally would finish at a jaw-dropping 3.9 for LA, compared to 0.9 for IMCF. All the Galaxy needed was a goal to reward themselves for their efforts. The otherwise outstanding Puig failed to beat Drake Callender with a first-half penalty kick and saw Miami’s goalkeeper deflect another Puig drive onto the woodwork, the highlight of his eight saves on the night.

Puig’s penalty was the most glaring of several spurned scoring chances throughout the match. Yet those errors seemed to be compensated for when Puig orchestrated a sweeping counterattack capped by Mark Delgado’s squaring pass to Dejan Joveljic for a simple tap-in in the 75th minute.

“It's true that they dominated the first half, especially with the period in which Riqui Puig had the most amount of time with the ball and made the team play very well,” acknowledged Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino afterwards. “They recently got their last two DPs and because of that, the team looks completely different. Because they have a great No. 9 and also two dangerous wingers, and also they're very solid defensively.

“But then we had the personality to continue searching, and we reached the tie, well, you could say with the genius of Leo.”

Barça boys

Indeed, Messi is still Messi. And when Delgado was ejected in the dying minutes for what looked a highly harsh second yellow card, it opened up just enough space and doubt for the GOAT to strike yet again, combining with Jordi Alba at breathtaking speeds of thought and execution to snatch a scarcely-deserved point via a 1-1 draw.

Just like Real Salt Lake in Fort Lauderdale at midweek, LA made their guests quite uncomfortable for extensive spans of this game. And just like RSL, they lacked the clinical finishing and killer instincts to leverage that – a trait Miami possess in abundance thanks to their distinguished list of attacking icons.

As leggy and road-weary as the Herons appeared to be, Messi and Alba still had something left in the tank right until the end, and the footballing IQ to sniff out fleeting gaps in the Galaxy’s rearguard and exploit them with the fluid pass-and-move panache we’ve come to expect.

“When he and Alba connect like that, it’s ridiculous,” lamented LA head coach Greg Vanney. “It’s really, really difficult to defend, and Alba’s very good at finding Messi when he gets on the move like that. And unfortunately, he just slipped away from us for a split second, and that became the difference.”

Work to do

Martino said he’ll consider rotating his lineup after Saturday’s match vs. Florida rivals Orlando City SC (4:30 pm ET | MLS Season Pass, FOX), which is closely followed by their opening Concacaf Champions Cup fixture. And the veteran manager does have work to do on the training ground, as well as an injury concern to midfielder Diego Gómez.

The defensive wobbles that kept Callender busy, the physical limitations of their 30-something stars’ legs (particularly the visibly frustrated Luis Suárez), the vulnerability to transitions – several of Miami’s flaws are increasingly evident. And it may not matter as much as it should if Messi keeps sniffing out decisive moments that rescue his side.

"For me it’s the brain, right?” said Vanney. “It’s what he sees on the field, where he recognizes different spaces, where he knows where everybody is all the time and he’s already organized with the next series of plays he’s looking at. Not just the next pass, the next series of passes. He’s already calculated all of that out and he’s already manipulating things on the field. And that’s why it’s tough sometimes, when you give them time on the ball, his capacity to just manipulate spaces.

“Whether defenders are able to step out or get pressure to something, or have to stay in and defend because he’s taking up a certain position, he’s just constantly manipulating the decisions that are happening on the field. Which is hard to coach against, but it’s a pleasure to watch.”

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