Ronaldinho's hat-trick in FC Barcelona's victory against Udinese Calcio on Tuesday may have captured the world's attention, but Lionel Messi was picked out for special praise by coach Frank Rijkaard after the match and the Spanish media paid full attention.
The teenage Argentinian's appearance in Barça's starting lineup for the match was another step in a prodigious career that has already seen him compared to Diego Maradona, represent his country at full international level and become his club's youngest ever goalscorer. Even this week, his award of a Spanish passport stole the headlines.
Although he did not put his name on the scoresheet in the 4-1 UEFA Champions League win, Messi showed all the skills that have earned him such rave reviews as he sped past defenders, dropped his shoulder to beat a man and dazzled opponents with his quick feet and powerful acceleration.
One mazy slalom forward looked set to end in a promising shot at goal. But instead Vidigal's attempted tackle ended in a clumsy challenge that earned him the first of his two bookings and gave Barça a free-kick from which Ronaldinho opened the scoring.
Messi may have been born in Rosario, Argentina, but to Barcelona he is one of their own and is seen as further proof of the recent success of the club's youth system. While Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto'o are the famous names that maintain their high profile abroad, the Catalan club is proud of their tradition of bringing through home-grown players and Messi is the latest in a list that includes Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández, Víctor Valdés, Oleguer Presas and Andrés Iniesta.
Messi, born in June 1987, was five when he started playing football for Grandoli, a local side run by his father Jorge. His ability was spotted by CA Newell's Old Boys and he soon joined his elder brother Rodrigo at the club. His coach at Newell's, Enrique Domínguez, knew that he had a precocious talent on his hands. "
He could do things with a ball that defied the laws of physics. The only other person I have ever seen do that was Diego Maradona," he remembered.
Messi's progress was then hit by the news that he had a hormonal problem that was preventing his growth. His father planned to move to Catalonia to earn more money to finance the €750-a-month treatment, but Barcelona knew all about Messi's talent and stepped in to pay his medical bills and sign him for the youth team.
Having arrived in Spain just 1.40m tall, Messi's physique and career both began to grow rapidly, and as his talent flourished his height shot up 29cm. After scoring 37 goals in 30 matches in his first season, the Spanish Football Federation hoped in vain to convince the youngster to play for his adopted country. Spain's Under-16 coach at the time, Ginés Menéndez, was a big fan. "For his age, he is the best player I have ever seen in my life," he said.
In November 2003, Messi played in a senior friendly against FC Porto and made his competitive debut just under a year later in Barça's victory against neighbours RCD Espanyol. He went on to make several appearances last season, including the Champions League fixture against FC Shakhtar Donetsk, before writing himself into the record books against Albacete Balompié as he became the youngest player ever to score in the league for Barcelona.
In the summer Messi's stock rose even higher as he led Argentina to victory at the FIFA World Youth Championship, ending the competition as top goalscorer and player of the tournament. Argentina coach José Pekerman called Messi into the full squad for a friendly encounter with Hungary in August, but this time he earned headlines for the wrong reasons as he was sent off just two minutes after coming on as a substitute.
Barcelona were so concerned that other clubs would poach their prize asset that, not long after giving Messi a five-year professional contract, they agreed a fresh deal to keep him at the club until 2014 and lift his buy-out clause to €150m, the same as Ronaldinho.
There was a hitch, in that Barcelona would not be able to field Messi - no longer a youth player - in league games as he took them over their quota of non-EU eligible players; but being awarded Spanish citizenship means he can once again take his place. Rijkaard is delighted that Messi is available every week and he summed up how important the youngster will become after the impressive display against Udinese: "
Messi again showed just what a special talent he is. He is still very young but is already crucial to the team."
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