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Messi set for Miami debut but maybe off the bench

MIAMI  ― Lionel Messi should make his debut for Inter Miami against Mexican club Cruz Azul today but the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner may be limited to a role off the bench.

The Argentine arrived in South Florida last week to a wave of enthusiasm and was presented to fans at a special stadium event on Sunday.

But since the initial hype, when club owner Jorge Mas described him as “America’s number 10” and promised the move would “change the football landscape” in the USA, there has been a noticeable change of tone.

Messi only started training in earnest this week after spending time with his family on vacation and the opening game of the new Leagues Cup ― which pits MLS and Liga MX teams together in a tournament format ― may come too soon for the World Cup champion to start.

Co-owner David Beckham said on Tuesday that Messi will play “some part of the game” and coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Messi’s compatriot and former Barcelona coach, had suggested he might start on the bench.

At the pre-match press conference, moved to the downtown performing arts center in Fort Lauderdale due to the huge media interest, Martino said they would make a decision on how to use Messi after training on Friday.

“It is very difficult for people not to have expectations,” said Martino, “But it may take a while.”

Spanish midfielder Sergio Busquets, a former team-mate of Messi’s from their glory days with Barcelona, certainly doesn’t feel ready yet for a full game in what will also be his debut.

“I need time to adapt. It would be practically impossible for me to play 90 minutes tomorrow,” he said.

The fact that fans have paid around US$250 (RM1,135) for tickets for what has long been billed as Messi’s debut, means that he almost certainly will enter the field at some stage however.

Cruz Azul’s experienced coach, the Brazilian born Ricardo Ferretti, laughed when asked whether his team expected to face Messi.

“If he didn’t play… it would be better. But, they also have to think about something, why are there so many people here? Because of him, right?” said the 69-year-old.

But Ferretti, known as “Tuca” throughout his career as a coach in Mexico, was a little irked that the game between the two teams was being viewed purely as the debut of one player.

“We will not face a single player. He does not win or lose alone. Soccer is a team sport. There are players who stand out and deserve emphasis, I agree with that,” he added.

“There are two institutions here ― Cruz Azul is a historic team, one of the greats of Mexican football and Inter Miami is an important team in MLS,” he added.

The Inter Miami players who haven’t been making the headlines in recent days, have had a strange week with over 200 media turning out to film their training session on Tuesday.

A great team-mate

But DeAndre Yedlin, the USA international who played in the Premier League with Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United, said Messi has quickly fit into the dressing room.

“He’s a great team-mate. For the (presentation) event he had on Sunday, (striker Leonardo) Campana was looking for tickets and so he put it in the group chat, I didn’t even know that Messi was in the group chat yet but he popped up straight away and said ‘how many do you need Leo?’

“Straight of the bat like that, they’ve known each other for like two or three days but just to show that generosity is a great first example of how he is,” he said.

Martino said that Messi looks happy in training and has noticed that he seems more relaxed having finally won a World Cup with his country.

“Leo is without a huge backpack that he had, and he took it off seven months ago. I think we are in a great moment,” the coach said.

Busquets, who has been joined by another former Barca team-mate in defender Jordi Alba, who signed for the club on Thursday, said it was great to be reunited with Messi.

“I’m very happy to enjoy Leo as a teammate again, we parted ways, but time gives us the opportunity to get back together, he is a great person.

“We are looking forward to playing with the best player in the history of football, I am very happy for everything, hopefully we can take what we did now to Inter Miami.” ― AFP

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