Lionel Messi dazzles on his return from injury

Lionel Messi scored on his return from injury as Inter Miami drew with Colorado The Argentine scored a superb equalizer before Cole Bassett grabbed a point Lionel Messi had not even left his seat when the Inter Miami fans behind their team’s substitutes bench started to go wild.

All it took was for his burly bodyguard to start patrolling the sideline for thousands of fans to know what was about to happen. That’s how obsessed they have become with their hero.

Seconds later, there he was. Messi – who hadn’t played since March 13 because of an injury – was waving to the crowd like a King greeting his people.

Messi stood and watched as the Colorado Rapids took the lead while he warmed up. Rafael Navarro fired home from the penalty spot and then fired a figurative gun in the direction of the World Cup winner while celebrating.

The Brazilian soon looked foolish, though. Messi was brought on by Tata Martino at half time and 15 minutes later Inter Miami led 2-1. The Argentine scored the equalizer – a sublime first-time finish – and had a helping hand in the second. He’s back.


Lionel Messi returned from injury to inspire Inter Miami to a comeback win on Saturday night


Messi needed just 12 minutes to equalize for Inter Miami against the Colorado Rapids


Messi had not played since March 13 but produced a sublime finish from the edge of the box


Leo Afonso scored his first goal for Inter Miami’s first team to put them in front moments later


The Colorado Rapids celebrate their late equalizer after a clinical breakaway in the 87th minute


Inter Miami: Callender, Ruiz, Sailor, Allen, Negri, Aviles (Busquets 56), Borgelin, Gressel (Weigandt 56), Sunderland (Messi 46), Afonso (Alba 70), Campana (Gomez 42).

Subs not used: Suarez, Dos Santos, Freire, Cremaschi.

Goals: Messi 57, Afonso 60

Booked: Negri, Weigandt, Alba

Colorado Rapids: Steffen, Anderson, Bombito, Maxso, Vines, Bassett, Larraz (Stewart-Baynes 77), Mosso (Harris 64), Mihailovic, Cabral (Yapi 64), Navarro (Diack 85).

Subs not used: Abubakar, Frederick, Beaudry, Edwards, Travis.

Goals: Navarro 45, Bassett 88

Booked: Navarro, Cabral

But while Messi can transform things at one end of the pitch, he cannot provide a solution for Miami’s deficiencies in defense.

In the 87th minute the Rapids delivered a sucker punch on the break that silenced the home fans. Cole Bassett’s fine finish into the far corner stole a point just when Messi thought he had won all three.

‘What Leo did is what he always does, how he affects our team, all his teammates, the fans, and the most important thing is he felt comfortable, he felt good, he felt loose, and that’s why it’s a shame to have to give up two points,’ said Martino.

There are greater challenges on the horizon for Inter Miami, namely the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarter-final tie against Monterrey in midweek.

‘We know it was a risk for him to play the first game against Monterrey,’ the manager continued. ‘We knew, well we planned, because there are variables, that he would play some minutes today.

‘We thought 30-45 minutes. He felt good. This helps us to arrive at the game (against Monterrey) next Wednesday with more confidence regarding his injury.’

Martino was also able to rest Luis Suarez and brought both Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba on in the second half. Resting those weary legs is a necessity as the games continue to pile up.

The absence of all four of Inter Miami’s star names was blatantly obvious in a first half that saw them lack control and composure.

They barely had a kick and when they did they couldn’t keep hold of the ball as the Rapids swarmed around them.

Miami was also guilty of feeble defending, particularly when Navarro bulldozed his way through tackle after tackle inside the box before his cross was turned behind for a corner.


Colorado Rapids forward Rafael Navarro opened the scoring with a ruthless penalty


He fired a figurative gun in the direction of Messi as the Argentine warmed up on the sideline

Miami escaped another scare moments later when Rapids winger Kevin Cabral looked as though he was through on goal.

Referee Ted Unkel, however, somehow missed an obvious foul on Cabral as he raced through that, had it been given, would have left Miami defender David Ruiz at risk of an early bath.

Julian Gressel had Miami’s first effort but his shot was straight down the throat of former Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Minutes later, Tomas Aviles should have put the hosts in front but he clipped his effort over the crossbar.

Miami were limited largely to counter attacks and imposing winger Shanyder Borgelin was played through down the right. He tried to drive into the box with Leonardo Campana rushing in but was easily dispossessed as the attack broke down.

Then Messi stood up and ran down the touchline, prompting cheers so loud it was as if Miami had taken the lead.

Whether he did it on purpose or not, Messi teased the home fans by taking his bib off only to turn it around and put it back on.

Just yards in front of where Messi was warming up, teammate Ryan Sailor clumsily lunched into Cabral and wiped the tricky winger out. It was an obvious penalty on the stroke of half time and Navarro ruthlessly fired it home.

Despite being a goal down, the atmosphere completely changed when Messi was introduced at the break. Hope of a comeback filled the stands and filtered down onto the pitch.


Inter Miami were transformed when Messi came on and he caused the Rapids defense issues


Messi looked to be through on goal but the pass to him was intercepted by Zack Steffen

He brought calm and control to a performance that had been erratic. They were better on the ball, kept it for long periods and started to draw the Rapids defense into places they didn’t want to go.

Then came his goal – a finish that we’ve seen from him countless times but its execution still remains almost inexplicable.

Franco Negri was released down the left and drove a pass across the the edge of the box. Messi had already pulled away from his defender and, first time, curled the ball in off the post.

Three minutes later and Miami were ahead. Somehow Messi was allowed acres of space in the middle of the pitch. He took the ball and played in an overlapping Ruiz, who was raiding down the right.

Like the first goal, the full back played a pass across the face of goal and there was Leo Afonso, who fired home for his first goal for Miami’s first team.

The introductions of Busquets and Alba further compounded things for the Rapids, whose coach Chris Armas – formerly of Manchester United – is still probably wondering how his team folded so easily.

More chances came for Miami. Messi weaved in and out of defenders before unleashing a fierce shot on goal. He saw a free-kick narrowly fly over the crossbar.

But then came the sucker punch. The Rapids broke quickly and Bassett was on the receiving end of a perfectly weighted through ball. He fired back across goal into the corner to snatch a point.



Two people ran onto the pitch to get a selfie with Messi before security quickly intervened


Inter Miami coach Tata Martino was left to rue his side’s costly defensive lapse late in the game

‘We continue to commit errors that make us leave points in our wake,’ added a frustrated Martino.

‘Wining a game 2-1 in the 87th minute, and for them to score on a counterattack is not normal. Not having a good reading of the game, of the moment. Not having people in front of the attacker.. it definitely cost us.’

Despite an army of pitchside security guards, a pair of fans got onto the field in the final minutes in separate incidents. One got a selfie with Messi, the other was wiped out so quickly he barely had time to grab his phone.

While Messi’s return was a cause for celebration for Miami, it proved to be another costly night for Martino as their injury problems – going back to their seven-match, global pre-season tour – got worse.

They were already without seven players here but lost Leo Campana late in the first half with what appeared to be a hamstring issue and Afonso a few minutes after his second-half goal. It’s not ideal in the midst of a grueling stretch of five matches in 15 days.

As Messi proved tonight, Miami are a completely different team when he’s on the field. But, at the age of 36, keeping him healthy is a battle they’ll face all season.

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