Duo, once part of a fearsome Barcelona forward line, now spearheading MLS side’s quest for trophies

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring for Inter Miami in their 2-2 Concacaf Champions Cup last-16 first leg draw with Nashville at GEODIS Park on March 7, 2024.  Getty Images

Inter Miami forward Luis Suarez heads home the late leveller against Nashville. AP
Luis Suarez is mobbed by his Inter Miami teammates after scoring. Getty Images
Inter Miami's Sergio Busquets challenges Teal Bunbury of Nashville. Getty Images
Inter's Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi argue with Anibal Godoy of Nashville. Getty Images
Inter Miami forward Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring. AP
Inter's Lionel Messi skips past the challenge of Nashville midfielder Hany Mukhtar. AP
Inter Miami's  Luis Suarez and Alex Muyl of Nashville challenge for a header. AP
Inter's Lionel Messi picks up an injury against Nashville. Getty Images
Lionel Messi scores for Inter Miami. Getty Images
Nashville forward Jacob Shaffelburg celebrates after scoring his second goal. AP
Lionel Messi celebrates with his Inter teammates after scoring. Getty Images

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring for Inter Miami in their 2-2 Concacaf Champions Cup last-16 first leg draw with Nashville at GEODIS Park on March 7, 2024. Getty Images

Just 58 seconds into the second half of the Champions Cup last 16 clash at Nashville and Inter Miami were in trouble.

Canada winger Jacob Shaffelburg, who had put the home side in front after just four minutes, picked up the ball on the edge of the area, took a couple of touches before blasting a thunderous strike into the top corner.

Miami players, resplendent in their fluorescent pink shirts, looked stunned. Nashville twice threatened to make it 3-0 and inflict a damaging first-leg deficit.

But in a time of crisis, it helps that you can rely on three of the most successful and experienced footballers of the modern era.

Sergio Busquets (now 35), Luis Suarez (37) and Lionel Messi (36) – coming to your rescue.

Within six minutes, the tide had changed; Suarez, Uruguay’s all-time top scorer, passed the ball to Messi, Argentina’s all-time top scorer, and the eight-time Ballon d’Or winner curled the ball beyond the reach of Nashville goalkeeper Joe Willis.

Then, deep in stoppage time, the ball found its way to midfielder Busquets, capped 143 times for Spain, on the right who dinked the ball into the middle for Suarez to head home to secure a 2-2 draw to take back to Miami for Wednesday’s second leg.

“We were calm, we were patient, and we did it simply by playing. It leaves us in a good place for the second round of 90 minutes left to play at home,” said Miami manager Gerardo Martino.

Less than seven months earlier, against the same opposition, the Major League Soccer franchise part-owned by former England captain David Beckham, had secured their first ever trophy.

A thrilling 10-9 penalty shoot-out win meant Miami had lifted the Leagues Cup in their fourth season of existence and just one month after the arrival of Messi.

“We have infected the team with our spirit, our work, our character and experience,” said Busquets, 35, who was now one of three former Barcelona teammates alongside Messi and Jordi Alba, a mere whippersnapper at 34 and with only 93 Spain caps to his name.

“We are making a solid team … And then we have Leo, who makes a difference because he’s the best in the world.”

And three was soon to become four former Barca boys when Messi’s old strike partner Suarez, fresh from a prolific spell with Brazilian side Gremio, joined in pre-season.

At Barcelona, the pair scored more than 500 goals between them, helping the team – along with Alba and Busquets – win the Fifa Club World Cup, the Uefa Champions League, the Uefa Super Cup, four La Liga titles and four Copa del Reys in six seasons.

The prospect to play alongside a trio of old teammates was clearly an enticing one. “One of the motivations for me coming here was to reunite with them,” Suarez, 37, said after his first practice in Miami.

“But more than anything, we are very ambitious, very professional and we are committed to showing the young talented Inter Miami players that your age doesn’t matter, what matters is the commitment you have on and off the field.”

The new MLS campaign would start with a hard-fought 2-0 win over Salt Lake which saw Messi and debutant Suarez both register an assist, for Robert Taylor and Diego Gomez, respectively.

“Last year we talked about how Messi opened up so much space, but you have Messi and Suarez now … it opens a lot of space for me on the wing,” Taylor said after the match.

“They know each other well, but it takes time for them to find that connection again that they had in Barcelona,” added Martino, himself a former coach at Camp Nou.

That was followed by a 1-1 draw at LA Galaxy, courtesy of a stoppage-time Messi goal after he had combined cleverly with Alba. But it would be Matchday 3 that the Messi-Suarez partnership 2.0 would click into gear as local rivals Orlando City were dispatched 5-0.

Suarez scored twice in the first 11 minutes – his first goals for the club – while also setting up Taylor for the third and supplying the cross for Messi – who also bagged a brace – to head home the fifth.

“We were calm because we know who Luis is and what he is capable of,” Messi, 36, said of his old friend. “He is like that. When you least expect it, he can define a game.”

But it was Suarez’s unselfishness when he squared the ball for Taylor, despite being on a hat-trick himself, that caught the eye of teammate Julian Gressel.

“That shows who he is, that shows what he does for this team, and how important he is,” said the USA international. “To have a guy like him on the team with that individual quality, I think we saw it today. That is something that is certainly good to have moving forward.”

There was a blip on Sunday, though, when Miami lost 3-2 at home to CF Montreal with Alba scoring what turned out to be a sublime consolation goal, supplied by Busquets.

With the Nashville second leg firmly in mind, Martino left Busquets and Suarez on the bench – both came on in the second half – while Messi was not risked at all after picking up a minor knock.

The stakes are high as victory in the Champions Cup is a gateway not only to December’s inaugural Intercontinental Cup (the annual Fifa Club World Cup in all but name) but also the 32-team World Cup in 2025.

Despite their first MLS loss, Miami are top of the Eastern Conference after four games and the club captain is pleased with the team’s start. “We are doing well, enjoying ourselves, growing,” said Messi. “We are aware of the pressure on us … We know that it is a long road, that this is just beginning.”