There are moments in a season when a team can only look to their talisman in their hour of need - whether that’s to score a late winning goal or to push their teammates through a tough spell. For both Leagues Cup 2023 finalists, their key players delivered at exactly the right moments early on in the tournament from off the bench.
In Inter Miami CF’s case, the instant impact came from Lionel Messi. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has more than lived up to the fanfare that welcomed his arrival in Florida last month. In the space of just six matches, he has scored nine goals and registered one assist.
The Argentine maestro gave fans a taste of things to come with his debut cameo in the opening game of the group stages, against the 2019 Leagues Cup winners Cruz Azul. Messi came on shortly after the start of the second half, and duly impressed fans as he orchestrated his team’s attacks - but the best was yet to come.
With the score level, the hosts Inter Miami were awarded a free-kick in the 94th minute, just outside the box. There was only one man for the job, and Messi made it a dream debut by sending a curling effort into the top corner, prompting rapturous celebrations on and off the pitch.
Nashville SC’s curtain-raiser against the Colorado Rapids three days later saw a similar spark from their own number ten ignite the game. As the game was approaching the hour mark, neither side was able to find a breakthrough.
Enter Hany Mukhtar, the reigning MLS MVP and the current season’s top scorer so far. The German was brought on by head coach Gary Smith in the 56th minute, and would find the net just over a minute later on, finishing off a well-worked counter-attack.
The Tennessee outfit would go on to win the game 2-1, and Mukhtar would add another two strikes to his tally on his team’s run to the Leagues Cup 2023 final. He nearly scored one of the goals of the tournament in the semi-final win over CF Monterrey, but his long-range shot into the top right corner was ruled out after a VAR check for offside.
As the two finalists prepare to face off at GEODIS Park on Saturday evening, all eyes will be on the two clubs’ number tens. While Lionel Messi knows a thing or two about winning a final on the big stage, Hany Mukhtar has shown that he can deliver for his team when called upon. Will either one prove to be the match-winner for their team?