When the halftime whistle sounded on Wednesday night in Fort Lauderdale, Inter Miami star Lionel Messi walked toward the tunnel next to Orlando City defender Cesar Araujo, his hand over his mouth as the two exchanged words.

Through his first two games with Miami, Messi influenced the contests without much resistance from opponents. Last week against Atlanta United, he wasn’t fouled at all. That certainly wasn’t the case against Orlando City, which clearly entered with a plan to frustrate Messi and Sergio Busquets in this Florida derby.

Just a couple minutes before the referee signaled for the half, Messi had checked to receive a pass, shoving his arm into Araujo’s back to send the defender flying. Araujo and Orlando City defender Kyle Smith immediately returned the favor seconds later, fouling Messi as he received the ball and turned upfield. Messi jumped to his feet and gestured at the referee to produce a yellow card. The official obliged, booking Smith. Inter Miami players flew in to defend Messi, pushing and shoving ensued.

Messi lies on the turf as the referee flashes a yellow card (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

“It was just like a derby game should be,” said Inter Miami winger Robert Taylor.

As the cameras followed Messi and Araujo walking off the field at halftime, it was clear the Argentine star was peeved. Inter Miami players eventually separated Messi from his foil, but the Argentine legend looked over his shoulder as he entered the tunnel and waited for Araujo to catch up. He had a few more words.

Just before cameras cut away, Messi was seen shoving his arm out at the Orlando players next to him.

Orlando City’s plan to pester Messi may not have worked in limiting his influence — he scored twice to lead Inter Miami to a 3-1 win — but, if nothing else, Orlando City elicited the first real fight out of Messi in a Miami jersey.

And Messi looked more than up for it.

The Argentine picked up a yellow card, was chirping at opponents throughout the game and arguably could have had a second yellow for the shove on Araujo. Oh, and he also scored his fourth and fifth goals in just three games with Miami.

None of it surprised Inter Miami manager Tata Martino. Not the goals — and certainly not the intensity.

“He said he was coming to compete, he said he was coming to win things and he showed it today,” Martino said. “It was a clasico, it got heated in some moments of the game and, well, he’s doing what he said he would do.”

Messi is booked in the first half (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

It was clear from the very start that Orlando City was not going to make things easy on the night, and their players were definitely not going to shy away from Miami’s stars. That was very much to be expected. Orlando is known as a more physical team, and despite Miami being in just its fourth season, there have been some good moments between the intra-state rivals.

Even in the lead up to the game, an Inter Miami fan mural was splattered with purple paint.

The early foul on Busquets set a tone. Messi immediately seemed up for the intensity of the game. Three minutes after the foul on Busquets, Messi gave Miami the 1-0 lead with a volley from six yards out. He was left unmarked and alone in the box, more space around him than probably at any other point in the game. Fifteen minutes after the goal, he picked up a yellow for kicking out at Orlando City’s Wilder Cartagena. He nearly doubled the lead 10 minutes after that, with a left-footed shot caroming off the post.

Then, the confrontation just before halftime.

Orlando City felt the sequence that started it all should have been a second yellow for Messi and an ejection for his push on Araujo.

“It doesn’t matter who it is — if it’s a second yellow it needs to be treated the same,” Orlando City manager Oscar Pareja said.

Messi battles for possession with Cesar Araujo and Kyle Smith (Photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

The yellow went to one of the players in purple instead. And when the whistle sounded, Messi found Araujo as they walked toward the locker rooms. Araujo, for his part, played down the halftime incident when asked about it after the game.

“Absolutely nothing,” Araujo said in the mixed zone. “Normal things in a game, but no, nothing happened.”

But if your eyes were trained on Messi during the game — and most were — it felt like a true rivalry game. The second half provided a dose of controversy to go with it all.

A penalty was called just three minutes in when Josef Martinez looked to have been shoved down as he ran onto a pass. Replays showed Martinez went down easily. The referee did not go to video review. Messi told Martinez to take the penalty, and the 2018 MLS MVP buried it to the lower left corner.

For Pareja, that call changed the tone and outcome of the entire game.

“Today was a circus,” Pareja said. “The PK is unbelievable. Unbelievable. I don’t know if the VAR came today.”

The intensity in the game didn’t drop. Messi drew another yellow card on an Orlando player in the 57th minute when Mauricio Pereyra clattered into him. He stayed on the ground for two minutes holding his face before popping up to keep playing. In the 72nd minute, Messi essentially ended the game. This time, it was a clever flick from Martinez to Messi for an easy right-footed finish that made it 3-1.

Ten minutes later, Messi was seen again on camera verbally sparring with an Orlando City player — this time Felipe Martins. In the end, there were 27 fouls in the game and seven yellow cards.

Inter Miami celebrates Messi’s first half goal (Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

For Martino, it’s all a part of what will likely come with the territory this season for Miami. Playing against Inter’s trio of former Barcelona stars is probably going to bring out the best — and most intense — performances from other MLS teams.

“It is just like in Spain playing Barcelona and Real Madrid — the opponents up their level,” Martino said. “In Argentina, if you are playing Boca vs River, the same thing happens. Talking about the individuals, ‘I’m going to play against Messi. I’m going to play against Busquets. I am going to play against Jordi.’ Of course this is additional motivation. Yes, I expect much more of these matches. No doubt this is going to be the case. But I know how they compete — they’ve been competing at the highest level for years.

“So there is no reason to believe that even if the match is harsh and physical, that they won’t be able to play.”

Wednesday night definitely demonstrated as much. Messi has entertained plenty in his first three games. He has provided the goals, as he has through his whole career. On this night, however, it was his intensity that stood out.

He didn’t shy away from the fight. And it most certainly set up an intriguing storyline for when Messi and Miami head to Orlando on Septemeber 24.

“I think it’s clear that the rivalry is going to be wilder and better,” Pareja said. “And we are ready to do it.”

(Top photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)