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Lionel Messi quiet (by his standards), but Inter Miami roll, advance to Leagues Cup semifinals

FORT LAUDERDALE — Lionel Messi almost didn’t score for the first time in an Inter Miami uniform.

The international superstar played all 90 minutes Friday night, but he rarely provided any threatening moments nor a jaw-dropping play like he had in each of his first four Inter Miami games. Besides the extra buzz in the stadium whenever he touched the ball, Messi looked human.

But even so, he still found his way on the scoresheet in the match’s final minutes on a tap-in goal for good measure. The match was all but over at that point, as Inter Miami grinded to a 4-0 victory over Charlotte FC at DRV PNK Stadium to advance to the Leagues Cup semifinals.

Charlotte dragged Inter Miami into a slow-paced match, one that didn’t see many fireworks despite Miami’s four goals. Inter Miami controlled 62.2% of possession, and relied on much better defending and a two-save clean sheet from goalkeeper Drake Callender.

Midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi returned to the starting lineup after he scored a goal and converted the winning penalty kick against FC Dallas.

Inter Miami are now guaranteed two more matches, one on Tuesday and another next weekend in either the final or third-place game.

Inter Miami got off to a hot start again, taking an early 1-0 lead for the fourth consecutive game. However, this time it wasn’t Messi — who scored in the first eight minutes in each of the previous three games –  but it easily could’ve been.

First, a bouncing loose ball in the Charlotte box grazed the hand of a defender, but no whistle was blown. Seconds later, midfielder Dixon Arroyo drew a foul in the box to set up an Inter Miami penalty kick. Forward Josef Martinez took the kick, rather than Messi, and easily sent it into the net in the 11th minute.

Charlotte began its first set of serious threats after the goal, but Miami defended well, particularly with patience and discipline that wasn’t apparent against Dallas.

Messi’s first shot on frame came in the 30th minute but was saved after a smooth give-and-go with forward Robert Taylor. Two minutes later, Taylor scored his fourth goal in the last five games.

The sequence began at midfield when midfielder Sergio Busquets lofted a perfect pass down the right sideline for defender DeAndre Yedlin. Taylor made a run to the center of the box, but was never picked up by a Charlotte defender. Yedlin patiently held the ball to sync with his run, then centered the ball to the wide-open Taylor, who unleashed a right-footed one-timer into the bottom left corner of the net.

The slow pace of play continued into the second half with each team strategically making moves like a chess match.

Inter Miami delivered the dagger in the 79th minute on a Charlotte own-goal.

Midfielder Diego Gomez, who came on in the 71st minute for Cremaschi, attacked up the left sideline and serviced a low ball toward the back post. Charlotte defender Adilson Malanda slid in on a challenge from behind, and redirected the ball into the net.

Messi provided the cherry on top in the 86th minute, redirecting a cross from forward Leonardo Campana. He’s scored eight goals in his first five Inter Miami matches.

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