Saturday’s Leagues Cup 2023 final more than lived up to its high-profile billing at GEODIS Park, as a breakneck, hard-fought ninety minutes saw the title decider head to a penalty shoot-out. In the end, it was the underdogs Nashville SC who would come up short, as Inter Miami CF claimed a first-ever title in the club’s history in dramatic fashion.
The intensity was turned all the way up from kick-off, as the hosts managed to keep the Florida outfit at bay - that is, until the ball fell to Lionel Messi on the edge of the box in the 25th minute.
The Argentine maestro, after shifting past a challenge, would send a curling strike into the top left corner to break the deadlock. As good a time as any for the number ten to score his tenth goal of this summer’s Leagues Cup.
Messi looked to be on his way to a title that would make him the most decorated player in soccer history - but Gary Smith’s men would not go down without a fight.
Nashville SC came out for the second half with a renewed spirit and a new tactical set-up, which paid dividends after ten minutes. From a corner swung towards the far post, Haiti international Fafà Picault broke free of his marker to send a low header towards goal that deflected off shot-stopper Drake Callender into his own net.
The reinvigorated Tennessee outfit then pushed on for the winner, and even looked closest to scoring - Callender notably came out on top in a one-on-one situation against Sam Surridge. The best chance of the closing stages fell to Inter Miami CF, though. Leonardo Campana found himself through on goal, and saw his initial effort past Elliot Panicco drift wide. But the Ecuadorian then chased his shot, and reached it for a potential open-goal finish - but he hit the post.
The Leagues Cup 2023 title was to be decided on penalties, then. Inter Miami CF would score all of their spot-kicks bar one - Messi converting the first, and Campana getting his redemption by scoring his too. Víctor Ulloa would miss the potential title-decider on his team’s fifth effort, meaning the shoot-out went on, up until the eleventh round. The unlucky taker would be Nashville SC goalkeeper Elliot Panicco, whose shot was parried by his Inter Miami CF counterpart.
It’s a perfect start to Lionel Messi’s time in North America, as the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner becomes the most decorated player in soccer history. Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s men are a transformed side, and are now among the continent’s elite. They’ll be looking to put that new status to the test as they enter the CONCACAF Champions Cup 2024 directly in the knockout rounds, courtesy of tonight’s win.