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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Messi vs. Ronaldo? Saudi Pro League vs. MLS? In Riyadh, it was no contest.

Saudi Arabian side Al Nassr had a commanding three-goal lead coming out of halftime, the home fans had been given plenty to cheer for, but in the 47th minute a lone fan behind one goal stood up with a reason to shout.

“Where is Messi?!” he screamed.

That solitary call eventually turned into a chant – a reference to the viral interview with a Saudi Arabian fan asking the same question after their country’s shocking win over Messi’s Argentina at the World Cup last December in Qatar. The question was just as relevant on Thursday night, as Messi, like his longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo, watched the first-half action from off the field.

Where was Messi? The better question might have been where was the rest of Inter Miami. By the time Messi came on as a substitute in the 83rd minute, the scoreline was an embarrassing 6-0 in favor of Al Nassr.

You wouldn’t know it based on the reaction to his entry. The Argentine legend got a standing ovation when he stepped on the field and cheers every time he touched the ball. In all, though, the outcome was far from what Inter Miami wanted, even in a preseason game. And it was hardly an advertisement for anyone hoping for a favorable MLS vs. Saudi Pro League comparison — or Messi vs. Ronaldo by extension.

“I don’t think you can compare” the teams and leagues based on this result, Inter Miami midfielder Julian Gressel said. “I think we’re very early on in the process of getting ready for the season. This is our third week now together as a team after a long couple months off. I think we would love to have a rematch at some point. I think that’s the competitor in me, and kind of maybe in an official competition and hopefully we can have that at a Club World Cup, for example. I think that’s the only way that we could ever really, really do that. … But again, those are good teams that we played. We knew that coming in, good tests, good preseason games that will get us ready for the year and we have a lot to learn from.”

Ronaldo was ruled out through injury in advance of the highly-anticipated matchup (AFP via Getty Images)

Fans arriving at Kingdom Arena knew already that Ronaldo would not be playing. Al Nassr manager Luis Castro had announced as much the day before the game. Still, his name was ever present as fans streamed in wearing Ronaldo jerseys. One young boy climbed the stairs from the parking lot 90 minutes before kickoff and, as the stadium came into view and he stepped onto a pathway, took a few steps forward, jumped, spun and threw his arms down, shouting “SIUUUU,” Ronaldo’s trademark celebration.

Messi, it was assumed, would still be playing. Once fans gathered inside the stadium, however, the situation changed. A source confirmed a report from the Miami Herald shortly before kickoff that Messi had felt some discomfort in training on Wednesday, underwent an MRI and was not going to play. Inter Miami released a lineup graphic without Messi on the bench.

But then Messi walked out to the field with his teammates and sat on the bench wearing team gear and his cleats. Inter Miami subsequently released a second lineup graphic with Messi named as a substitute, deleting the initial post. Fans cheered as the big screens showed Messi reaching down and adjusting the laces on his boots. Apparently, the World Cup winner was now available for selection.

“I think he kind of tried to complete training yesterday and felt a little something the other day in the game, that’s why he came out,” Gressel said. “But then today he felt like he could play and that’s kind of all I really know. So I think it’s obviously still preseason for us. So we don’t really want to risk anything more.”

The confusion for Miami fans off the field seemed to transfer to the team on the field; Al Nassr needed just 12 minutes to take a 3-0 lead over an Inter Miami side that looked completely overwhelmed.

Defensive issues had already surfaced in the opening preseason game against Al Hilal here in Saudi Arabia, and against Al Nassr they did so again. A mistake at the back in the third minute from Tomas Aviles led directly to Otavio’s opening goal. Seven minutes later, more poor defensive organization led to Anderson Talisca’s back-post finish. Just two minutes after that, goalkeeper Drake Callender was caught well off his goal line by a stunning Aymeric Laporte free kick from several yards inside his own half.

The pro-Al Nassr crowd could not get enough. They cheered and chanted. The rout was on.

Outside of the goals, though, the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for the big screens all around the stadium, on which Ronaldo and Messi were shown several times over the course of the night. Early in the game, dueling chants broke out, first for the home star Ronaldo, who was shown in a luxury box in the stadium, and then for Messi. At one point, the stadium operator put up a split screen of the pair that were supposed to be the marquee on-field actors of the night.

It wasn’t all adulation. Later in the first half, one of Inter Miami’s stars, Sergio Busquets, was booed when his face was shown on the big screen. Two awful tackles in the 25th minute – the first by Inter Miami’s Gregore on Talisca, then Al Nassr’s Nawaf Boushal on Inter’s Noah Allen —  led to a bit of a scrum near the sideline. Busquets ran into the fray to make his displeasure known about Boushal’s tackle, and in doing so wrapped his hand hard around the face of Boushal. It looked like a punch, and it elicited jeers and boos when shown on the big screen from several angles.

That felt like the most fight Inter Miami put up in the game.

Messi reacts during his brief appearance in the 6-0 rout (Mohammed Saad/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Al Nassr remained firmly in control in the second half, adding a penalty in the 51st minute, a headed goal from Mohammed Maran in the 68th and a screamer of a finish from Talisca to complete his hat trick.

The scoreline didn’t play any tricks. The game felt that decisive.

“Obviously not the result that we wanted, but obviously a lot of lessons I think to take is a lot to learn from, for us to grow,” Gressel said. “There’s a ton of stuff that we can look at and we can go over with in film, but obviously it starts with us having a good start to the game. We can’t be down three (goals), 12 minutes into the game. I think that’s what it was and those are the lessons that you learn in preseason. … And ultimately, when the time comes, when it counts for us, that’s when we want to be at our best. And those games are valuable, in that sense, even though they sting quite a bit.”

The night before the Al Nassr game, Inter Miami manager Tata Martino addressed the challenge Miami faced matching up with two of the top Saudi Pro League teams while still in preseason form. The discussion would prove prescient.

“Which team has the best chance of competing? (Which is) better? One that has three DPs and three young DPs, or one that has eight players under the age of 30 at a very good level competing in the (Saudi Pro) League?” Martino asked. “Because when you count Bono, to (Kalidou) Koulibaly, to (Renan) Lodi, to the (former) Lazio midfielder (Sergej) Milinkovic-Savic, to (Rúben) Neves, to Malcom, to Michael and to (Aleksander) Mitrovic. The MLS does not have that possibility.”

Martino went on to rattle off the names of the players who would be on the field for Al Nassr and who wouldn’t, pointing out that each team is 13- or 14-deep with top players. Inter Miami was competitive in the first game, he said. But the path forward if MLS wants to compete against global clubs, he said, requires change.

“For me there is no need, and the comparison (between leagues) has no value,” Martino said. “It must be said that one league has a lot of money and total freedom and the other league has a little less money and less freedom (and) many more rules. I don’t know if the moment is now, if it will be based on what is coming, on the number of competitions that there are, but it is clear that for (MLS) to continue evolving (change must come). … I don’t know when, but it’s going to happen and it’s not like it’s going to happen without restrictions. It will be gradual and as the league believes it has to happen, but I have no doubt that to go out and compete in the world — for what the league is today, MLS, in its internal competition, has done enough — but to go out to compete in the world, it obviously takes much more.”

That felt especially true after Thursday’s result.

(Photo: Yasser Bakhsh/Getty Images)

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