Hernández: It's clear Lionel Messi's magic is fading after young Galaxy expose Inter Miami star

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Lionel Messi looked washed up.

Until he didn’t.

Intercepting a pass by Riqui Puig in the Galaxy’s half of the field, Messi played a couple of successive one-twos with longtime partner Jordi Alba and slid into a slanted return pass to redirect it past goalie John McCarthy.

The packed house erupted with euphoria.

Never mind that visiting Inter Miami had just leveled the score. If only for an instant, the announced crowd of 27,642 fans at Dignity Health Sports Park watched the 36-year-old Messi perform the kind of sorcery that made him the most decorated player in the world’s most competitive sport.

Messi’s strike of lightning during the 1-1 draw might have minimized the importance of the preceding 91 minutes, but only temporarily.

At some point, Inter Miami will have to deal with the reality that was uncovered on Sunday night.

Messi is old.

Luis Suarez is old.

Sergio Busquets is old.

The only member of the Barcelona Four who didn’t look as if he was playing with an empty gas tank was Alba, the 34-year-old left back who ran up and down the sideline as if he was 10 years his junior.

Major League Soccer’s most expensive team was outplayed by the revamped Galaxy for the majority of the night, and there’s no reason to believe Inter Miami won’t have more games like this.

How many more times can they count on Messi to conjure up late-game magic to save them?

Playing in a league with an exhausting schedule and a demanding travel itinerary, Inter Miami appears bound for disaster.

Messi wasn’t the same player who visited LAFC’s BMO Stadium in September. He wasn’t even the same player he was four days earlier, when Inter Miami defeated Real Salt Lake in their season opener.

He can still strike a ball with shocking precision, but he doesn’t recover as quickly as he used to. He’s lost a half-step, which explains how Galaxy defensive midfielder Edwin Cerrillo was able to keep him in check for most of the game. And when the Galaxy’s $10-million Brazilian import Gabriel Pec was substituted into the contest in the 70th minute, he stopped being the most interesting player on the field.

Messi and 37-year-old striker Suarez were basically spectators when the Galaxy had the ball, forcing Inter Miami to defend with eight field players.

One of them was the 35-year-old Busquets, who resembled a statue in the middle of the field. Just 11 minutes into the game, Busquets received a yellow card after resorting to illegal means to stop Galaxy attacker Joseph Paintsil in the open field.

The Galaxy’s attacking midfielder, Puig, exploited the open space that Inter Miami offered him. The game remained tied only because of the Galaxy’s inability to finish.

Inter Miami signed 21-year-old Federico Redondo last week, and the Argentina youth national team player should improve their midfield once he joins the team. But the addition of Redondo, and the anticipated return of sidelined 18-year-old midfielder Benjamin Cremaschi, won’t address the issues associated with building a team around a group of retirement-age players.

The Galaxy understand this, which is why they constructed their roster the way they did. Long known for their star attractions that have included David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Landon Donovan and Chicharito Hernández, the Galaxy adopted a sudden shift in strategy under first-year general manager Will Kuntz. Instead of signing another big-name international player, the Galaxy signed Pec, a 22-year-old from Brazil, and Paintsil, a 26-year-old from Ghana who was playing in Belgium.

What the Galaxy lacked in name recognition on Sunday night was more than made up for by their youthful vitality. They were more athletic than Inter Miami and more dynamic.

Messi rarely presented a threat, and only scored because he received a perfect pass. Unfortunately for the Galaxy, the pass was made to him by Puig.

Puig intercepted a pass by Messi, but in the rush to start a counterattack, inadvertently returned the ball to him. Messi ran onto the errant pass and was suddenly dribbling toward the goal with a full head of steam. Before Puig could close him down, Messi passed the ball to an overlapping Alba, who immediately passed it back. Messi held off Cerrillo and slipped the ball to the left side of the penalty box, from where Alba passed the ball through three defenders to an oncoming Messi.

The sequence was evidence of Messi’s continued ability to produce spectacular moments. Whether Messi can deliver a championship season, even in MLS, is entirely a different matter. Two games into Inter Miami’s season, the signs are ominous.

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