Inter Miami advances in CCC as Lionel Messi scores, exits early


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Lionel Messi set up an early goal then scored one before leaving Inter Miami CF's 5-3 Concacaf Champions Cup aggregate win over Nashville SC on Wednesday night, as it advanced to the quarterfinals of the regional club tournament.

The teams came into the game tied 2-2 on aggregate after the first leg in Nashville, but Luis Suárez scored at the end of a nice combination with Messi before the former Barcelona star scored one of his own with a cool finish from the center of the penalty area to give Miami a two-goal aggregate cushion.

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Messi was on the field to begin the second half, but Miami coach Gerardo Martino substituted him with Robert Taylor five minutes after the restart. It was unclear why Messi, who was rested in his team's 3-2 loss to Montreal in MLS on Sunday, was pulled, particularly so early in the second half.

"Leo has a muscle overload in his right leg. We don't want to take any kind of risk with him," Martino said after the match. "We tried to see if he could last a little longer after half-time, but it was bothering him, so we preferred to take him out the game."

It was a fourth straight game with a goal for Messi, bringing his season totals to five goals and four assists in five games for Miami this season.

Despite trailing 2-0, Nashville looked dangerous to start the second half with Miami's Drake Callender making two good saves to keep his team in front.

The home team put the game effectively out of reach shortly after the hour mark, though, when Suarez curled in a perfect cross from the right side and Taylor leapt to meet it and turn home a powerful curling header to extend the lead to 3-0.

Sam Surridge turned home a cross from Shaq Moored in second-half stoppage time to give Nashville a consolation goal.

Miami will play the winner of the round of 16 match between Monterrey and FC Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the CCC beginning April 2. It plays D.C. United away on March 16.

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi celebrate after scoring a goal for Miami against Nashville in the Concacaf Champions Cup.
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi celebrate after scoring a goal for Miami against Nashville in the Concacaf Champions Cup.
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Messi is also expected to take at least some part in a pair of Argentina friendlies later in the month against El Salvador and Costa Rica, with the World Cup champions preparing to defend its Copa America title this summer when the United States hosts the CONMEBOL cup competition.

The Miami star had been listed as questionable with a shin injury entering Sunday's game against Montreal, but Martino said after that match that the plan was always to rest Messi for that game.

The rest seemed to bode well for Messi's performance Wednesday, as he wasted no time making an impact.

He earned a free kick after a foul by Nashville's Aníbal Godoy just four minutes into the match, but had his attempt blocked. The 36-year-old seized his opportunity a few minutes later, using his impressive vision to fit a pass to a streaking Suárez, who sent the ball into bottom right corner of the net.

Messi then took a pass from Diego Gómez to score from inside the penalty area as fans started chanting his name, before Taylor scored Miami's third.

Nashville had a chance late in the second half when Hany Mukhtar got past Miami's defense and sent a shot into the back of the net. Officials overturned the goal after a lengthy review, ruling that Mukhtar was offside.

Wednesday was the fourth time that head coach Gary Smith's Nashville club has faced Messi since he joined Inter Miami and MLS last summer.

They'd played to three draws before Wednesday -- the first of which Miami won 10-9 on penalty kicks in the 2023 Leagues Cup final. Messi scored early in regulation and converted the first shot in penalty kicks as Miami won its first trophy in club history.

"It's a never-ending conundrum," Smith said ahead of Wednesday's match. "You try and set up a group to try and limit what he's able to do. He's proved throughout his career at the very best levels that no matter how good you are defensively, or how well-organized, the caliber of the individual will always find a way."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this recap.