FORT LAUDERDALE — Lionel Messi not only scored a second brace in as many games in Inter Miami’s 3-1 Leagues Cup win over Orlando City on Wednesday. He also passed the stiffest physical test since joining his new club.
Messi was jostled, buffered and agitated in the victory by an Orlando side that clearly wanted to out-muscle the 36-year-old, a tactic that many teams over two decades have tried and failed.
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“Just like when Barcelona play Real Madrid and River play Boca, these same things happen,” Miami coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino said. “We faced a very difficult opponent, it was very demanding.”
Messi opened the scoring in the seventh minute, and things started to get chippy as the first half went on, especially after Orlando had tied the game 10 minutes later.
The first incident was in the 19th minute when, after a Wilder Cartagena handball, Messi shoved the Orlando midfielder while trying to retrieve the ball to take the resulting free kick quickly.
Just over 60 seconds later, Messi was the first player booked in the game after he clumsily clattered into Cartagena from behind.
Things started to come to a head as time wound down at the end of the first half when referee Ivan Cisneros — within a matter of seconds — did not blow for what looked like a clear foul by Sergio Busquets, and then called a soft foul on an Orlando challenge on Josef Martínez.
The Orlando players were incensed and let their frustrations boil over in stoppage time when Messi shoulder-charged César Araujo — a foul that coach Oscar Pareja thought should have resulted in Messi being sent off.
“Tonight was a circus,” Pareja said after the loss. “There was a second yellow on Messi [that wasn’t given]. I don’t care if he’s Messi.”
Pareja was also upset at the second-half penalty decision that led to the go-ahead strike from the spot by the man who was allegedly fouled on the play, Martínez.
“The PK calls and others, they were ridiculous,” Pareja said. “We were very frustrated and tried to regain our composure. There were some circumstances in this game that shouldn’t happen.”
Messi appeared to have some harsh words for Araujo as the two walked to the locker room at the end of the first 45, but the World Cup champion would let his play once again do the talking after the break when he scored his fifth goal in three games after a lovely chest-down assist by Martínez.
This kind of performance by Messi is nothing new for teammate Jordi Alba, who came on for his debut with 30 minutes or so remaining.
He has seen this all before. “It’s no longer a surprise what Leo does. It’s outrageous. After two years without playing together, today we finally did it again and now I’m ready to enjoy more years together,”