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What next for Lionel Messi after Inter Miami’s playoff hopes are extinguished?

An outrageous free-kick winner in the 94th minute of Messi’s debut set the tone for a seven-match winning run that culminated with victory in the Leagues Cup final. Yet, a draining sequence of 11 games in 44 days eventually caught up with the 36-year-old.

Messi missed four consecutive matches for the Herons, watching on in frustration as his new club failed to win a single game and lost the US Open Cup final. Argentina’s skipper was only fit enough to amble through the final 35 minutes of Miami’s decisive 1-0 loss to FC Cincinnati on Saturday night, helpless as the club’s faint playoff hopes were extinguished.

As 18 other teams across the division gear up for the MLS post-season, here’s what lies ahead for Messi in the immediate future.

World Cup qualifiers with Argentina

Lionel Messi is enjoying the form of his life for Argentina / SOPA Images/GettyImages

Inter Miami have been deliberately vague regarding the availability of Messi in recent weeks but his inclusion in the Argentina squad for October’s World Cup qualifiers served as a positive omen.

Lionel Scaloni has already twice convinced Messi to turn down international retirement and is certainly reaping the rewards. Across Messi’s last 15 appearances for Argentina, he has scored a staggering 23 goals.

Messi’s free kick earned Argentina a win in a tricky opening qualifier against Ecuador but he was sidelined for the 3-0 victory over Bolivia in La Paz last month.

The reigning world champions, who have lost just one of their previous 49 matches across all competitions, host Paraguay in the early hours of Friday 13 October. A trip to Lima to face Peru awaits five days later.

Argentina’s final set of fixtures for the calendar year are two of their toughest. Former national team coach Marcelo Bielsa will take his new Uruguay side to the country of his birth on 16 November before a daunting trip to Brazil’s Maracana on 21 November. Brazil, incredibly, have never lost a World Cup qualifier at home.

Argentina’s upcoming fixtures

Inter Miami’s final fixtures of 2023 MLS season

Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami knocked Charlotte out of the Leagues Cup quarter-finals this year / Hector Vivas/GettyImages

Inter Miami conclude the 2023 MLS season with a double-header against Charlotte FC.

Messi capped off a 4-0 rout of the Crown in the Leagues Cup quarter-final two months ago, sparking a wretched run of form which earned just one win in seven MLS matches for the North Carolina outfit. However, consecutive victories over Toronto and Chicago have kept Charlotte’s playoff aspirations alive.

Heading into the away-home series with Miami, Charlotte can sneak into the Eastern Conference’s top nine with a pair of wins.

Messi will certainly miss the first leg in Miami on 19 October if he is involved in Argentina’s qualifier against Peru, which is scheduled to take place less than 24 hours earlier in a different hemisphere. Without anything to play for, Messi may even be spared the trip to the Bank of America Stadium on 21 October.

When does the 2024 season begin for Inter Miami?

Lionel Messi does not have any competitive fixtures scheduled between December 2023 and February 2024 / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

Messi could be treated to as many as three months without competitive football. After November’s international break, Argentina’s next scheduled outing isn’t until September 2024.

The World Cup winner will not be back in action for Miami until the start of the 2024 MLS season. The new schedule has not yet been released but will likely follow the pattern of a spring start, somewhere around late February or early March.

The 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup, formerly known as the Champions League, gets underway at a similar time. Miami will likely finish the 2023 season with the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference but guaranteed automatic qualification for the Champions Cup round of 16 by winning the Leagues Cup in August.

Messi triumphed in Europe’s premier club competition four times with Barcelona. There has been the suggestion that the Catalan side’s all-time leading goalscorer will return to Spain on loan in January but Miami manager Tata Martino has poured cold water over that theory. Fans could have to wait the best part of five months before seeing Messi play club football again.