Amid the fanfare, the glitz and the glamor and the sold-out stadium, an Argentine superstar wearing No 10 received a rapturous reception as he walked out of the tunnel in Atlanta. The catch? It was Thiago Almada, and not Lionel Messi.
This was billed as the next leg of Messi’s US tour, another sold-out stadium and the largest crowd of the MLS season, crackling with the excitement of seeing the best to have ever played the game.
In the end, they could have done with him: an eight-minute first-half collapse saw Miami fall from 1-0 up to 3-1 down, and their unlikely playoff push take an almighty hit in the process.
It emerged late on Friday night that Inter Miami had opted to leave Messi back in South Florida, where he ate pizza and watched his son Thiago play for the club’s academy instead of traveling to Georgia, and Atlanta’s artificial field.
It was the worst news possible for the MLS season-record 71,635 in attendance at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, thousands of whom were decked out in Messi 10 shirts, having paid hundreds of dollars and traveled thousands of miles to be at the game.
Brooks Lennon celebrates after scoring the third of Atlanta United’s five goals on Saturday
The Gulch – Atlanta’s raucous home support behind the goal – celebrate their team’s fifth
A young fan in the stands sums up the thoughts of many in attendance in Atlanta, Georgia
In truth, perhaps Tata Martino – a man revered in these parts after guiding Atlanta United to the MLS Cup in 2018 – will regret the decision to rest his star man. The math is simple: leave Messi out and you lose, 100 percent of the time.
Going into the game on Saturday night, Inter Miami were unbeaten in 12 – 11 of those ending in wins – a run stretching back to the day Messi signed. This was the first time he had been absent from the squad list, and the first time the hype train veered off the tracks.
It all started so well for Martino and Miami, who rode some early Atlanta pressure and then used a moment of pure magic to take the lead and silence the notoriously loud Atlanta crowd, who were desperate for an entertaining game after the initial disappointment of Messi’s absence.
The move was started by Dixon Arroyo, whose long-range rocket rattled the frame of the goal, only for Leonardo Campana to take the reins and finish the move brilliantly.
The Ecuadorian youngster signed a four-year contract extension this week and he celebrated by lifting the ball over the head of Atlanta center back Miles Robinson, and volleying past a helpless Brad Guzan.
Lennon and his teammates celebrate on a night where they asserted their dominance
Lionel Messi was spotted watching his oldest son, Thiago, train Saturday morning in Miami
Messi jerseys were everywhere apart from on the field itself in Atlanta, leaving fans gutted
Thiago Almada was the Argentine No 10 on show on Saturday night – not Messi as many hoped
All the chatter after the goal centered around Miami’s playoff hopes. This was their toughest MLS test yet – and even without Messi, they were ahead. The live table on Atlanta’s 360-degree videoboard had them leapfrogging New York Red Bulls, New York City FC and Charlotte, up to 11th and just three points off a Wildcard spot.
Then, reality set in. First it was Tristan Muyumba to the rescue for Atlanta, glancing a near-post header off the far post and – just – across the line. A lengthy VAR check had the stadium holding its breath, but eventually the goal was given and Miami’s bubble had burst.
Four minutes later, and this incredible indoor arena erupted – at the expense of Inter Miami defender Kamal Miller. The move was started by Edwin Mosquera down the left, the diminutive midfielder whipping in a cross to a dangerous area. Miller, his legs in a tangle, inadvertently bundled the ball past his own goalkeeper, and Miami’s night went from good, to bad, to worse.
Worse became disastrous three minutes later when Atlanta added a third goal before halftime, Miami’s defense all-at-sea to allow Brooks Lennon to fire home. Caleb Wiley’s cross found the ex-Liverpool academy starlet unoccupied in the box, and he took one touch to get the ball out of his feet, and another to fire home and give his side a 3-1 lead.
Tata Martino left his star man at home for the first time, and Miami suffered a first loss in 12
Xande Silva (left) and Tristan Muyumba (right) celebrate after Kamal Miller’s own goal
In just eight minutes, the woeful defensive display of Miami gave a glimpse into life before Messi, Alba and Busquets; a reminder that this team were rock bottom and staring down the barrel of another disastrous season. In truth, they still are.
In the second half, there were threats of a comeback when a handball from Luis Abram gifted Inter Miami a penalty, and a route back into the game.
It was duly dispatched by Campana, who netted his fifth goal in just three games to make it 3-2. Miami had been here before this season, staging remarkable comebacks, but only ever with their talisman on the field. This time, he was 700 miles away, watching on TV with his feet up.
In truth, Martino’s side never really threatened Guzan’s goal again. Despite being just a goal behind, it looked ever more likely that Atlanta would extend their lead, and that became a reality on 76 minutes when star striker Giorgos Giakoumatis got in on the act.
Leonardo Campana celebrates after scoring for Inter Miami, but it wasn’t enough for the win
Josef Martinez received a rapturous welcome on his return to Atlanta, but his side lost
The Greek striker is in the midst of a remarkable campaign, and he finished off a brilliant team move to net his 14th goal of the year, leveling Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar as the league leader.
In the 89th minute, substitute Tyler Wolff capped off Atlanta’s five-star display with a fifth goal, firing home to put the result beyond doubt.
And so, it was a heavy defeat for Inter Miami – their first since Messi arrived in South Florida. The Argentine superstar has lifted the fog that surrounded the team, but this was a stark reminder that without him, they are just another MLS team – and a below-average one at that.
If they are to have any chance of reaching the postseason, they need him at his brilliant best. No more pizza breaks, Leo.