·22 September 2023
·22 September 2023
Lionel Messi famously plays the game at his own pace but, even for the walking wizard, he was particularly immobile in the first half of Inter Miami's 4-0 thrashing of Toronto FC.
Half an hour into Thursday's contest, with the game still goalless, Messi not only stopped - that isn't entirely out of character - but began gingerly stretching his leg while the ball was in play. The 36-year-old had his captain's armband off before the referee had blown his whistle, sidling up to DeAndre Yedlin and limping off the pitch after 37 minutes.
Tata Martino had already been forced to remove Jordi Alba, Messi's former Barcelona teammate who also arrived midway through the MLS season, before turning to Robert Taylor in place of his skipper.
Taylor scored twice as Miami romped to a 4-0 win in Messi's absence, but Martino would probably be more comfortable if this year's Ballon d'Or favourite returns to fitness rather than relying upon a forward that struggled to get off the bench in England's tenth tier.
Inter Miami defeated FC Cincinnati to reach the US Open Cup final / Joe Raedle/GettyImages
Inter Miami will line up for the club's first-ever US Open Cup final against the Dynamo on Wednesday 27 September at 20:30 ET, which equates to 01:30 on Thursday 28 September for viewers in the United Kingdom.
Wherever you may be watching, the final comes just seven short days after Messi failed to see out the first half of Miami's victory over Toronto.
Miami travel to Orlando City's Exploria Stadium this weekend, with the cup final one of a dizzying six matches in 17 days for the fresh-faced franchise. However, the powers that be on South Beach are most keenly interested in Messi's availability for the imminent showpiece, with the shot at a second piece of silverware in as many months after claiming the Leagues Cup in August.
Lionel Messi's availability in the cup final is uncertain after he was forced off against Toronto FC / Carmen Mandato/GettyImages
Messi made his first 11 appearances for Inter Miami - racking up 11 goals and five assists - in just 44 days; the same length of time as Liz Truss' entire reign as British prime minister.
Martino had begun to spout diplomatic waffle about resting Messi long before the workload had taken its toll. Argentina's World Cup-winning skipper joined up with his national team in September but missed the qualifier against Bolivia, with Lionel Scaloni blaming fatigue. Martino used the same line when Messi was promoting a tomato-ridden pizza in Miami while his side were hammered 5-2 by Atlanta United in Georgia on 17 September.
The day after taking Messi off against Toronto, Martino revealed that his number ten "has an old scar issue".
"It's bothersome," Martino continued, clearly uncomfortable delving too deeply into the details of Messi's injury. "I don't know if it hurts. I can't really explain as it's more a medical topic, it's probable it bothers him to the point, including mentally, that he isn't able to play freely."
Messi and Alba were both given "no chance" of featuring against Orlando City and Martino stressed that he would not rush his star players back from the treatment room.
"I know we have a final," Martino added. "But in no way will they step on the field if they're not in conditions to do so."
As he made abundantly clear in the first half against Toronto, Messi has the final say over his own fitness, effectively signalling his substitution when he felt the remnants of a past complaint. After a career of more than 1,000 matches, Messi has had to push through the pain barrier on countless occasions. Whether he will be able to grit his teeth through the biggest match in Inter Miami's short history remains to be seen.