Lionel Messi nets free-kick winner in Inter Miami debut


FORT LAUDERDALE: Lionel Messi scored on a brilliant free kick deep into second-half stoppage time to put an exclamation point on his Inter Miami debut and lift his new team to a 2-1 victory over Cruz Azul in both teams’ Leagues Cup opener on Friday.

Miami, which brought Messi off the bench because he’s only had three full training sessions with the team so far, was outplayed at times by the Mexican visitors in the match at Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

And even the Argentinian superstar who won the World Cup only months ago and captured the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player on seven occasions, had only scattered chances.

But after earning the foul himself about seven yards beyond the penalty area, Messi delivered an excellent, left-footed free kick that beat the defensive wall and goalkeeper Andres Gudino to the top left corner.

That sent a sold-out crowd that included the NBA’s LeBron James, tennis’ Serena Williams and media personality Kim Kardashian into celebration after Miami, which sat in last place in the Eastern Conference entering a month-long break for this tournament, won for the first time in any match since May 23.

“I knew it was the last chance,” Messi said of his free kick, according to ESPN.com. “I just tried like always do and fortunately the goalkeeper couldn’t get the ball.

“It is important for this team to get wins because we are not in a good position in the league. I know this is another tournament, but it will help our morale.”

Robert Taylor also scored for Miami just before halftime to get the Herons off to an excellent start in a three-team group that also includes Atlanta United, part of a competition that includes all 47 teams from MLS and Liga MX.

Former LA Galaxy winger Uriel Antuna equalized in the 65th minute for Cruz Azul, which led in shots 18-12 overall and eight to six in efforts on target.

Drake Callendar made seven saves for Miami to help them earn all three points, including two very early crucial saves that kept the match level and allowed Taylor to give the Herons the lead.

As the second half started, the 36-year-old Messi joined Miami’s subs in warming up along one of the touchlines to chants of “Mes-si, Mes-si!”

He entered the match in the 54th minute to a standing ovation as part of a triple substitution with fellow new arrival Sergio Busquets and striker Josef Martinez.

After Antuna produced an excellent leveler, Messi was caught offside on one apparent equalizer, and Martinez was in a similar position on another.

But there was nothing wrong with Messi‘s long-distance winner, which bent around the defensive wall in a way former England star turned Miami co-owner David Beckham made famous.

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