On 20th October 2004, a 17-year-old made Barcelona’s Champions League bench for the first time.
Lionel Messi didn’t get on the pitch, with Frank Rijkaard perhaps deciding that a child yet to open his first bank account wasn’t the player to unlock an AC Milan defence consisting of Cafu, Paolo Maldini, Jaap Stam and Alessandro Nesta.
Fast forward 15 years and
arguably the best player to kick a spherical orb will make his first appearance of the season, returning to the field to take on Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League.
It will be business as usual for Messi, now aged 32, aside from his duties in ensuring 16-year-old team-mate Ansu Fati feels at home amongst the cream of Europe’s crop.
The pair are yet to share a dressing room, given Fati’s emergence coincided with Messi’s recovery from a calf injury which saw him sit out Barcelona’s first four games of the season.
But in Messi’s absence the Fati Hype Train has shifted up to a pace not seen since the early days of… well, Messi.
Barcelona have stumbled without their captain, but the stumble would have been a fall were it not for Fati’s contributions.
The 16-year-old levelled the scores against Osasuna- in doing so becoming Barcelona’s youngest ever goalscorer- before becoming the youngest player to score and assist in the same game to set his side on the way to victory against Valencia.
Were it not for Fati, Barcelona’s failure to sign Neymar in the summer, coupled with an awkward start to the season, might have resulted in restless Catalan natives and Ernesto Valverde nervously glancing over his shoulder.
As it is, the prospect of Messi dovetailing with Fati, as the Argentine did with Ronaldinho 15 years ago, has the Camp Nou crowd reaching for their sunflower seeds. There’s a feeling that history is again unfolding in front of their very eyes.
Trying to stop comparisons between Messi and Fati is futile. Barcelona will have plans in place to restrict the 16-year-old’s media access and keep the youngster grounded, having already seen Messi comparisons cripple the likes of Bojan and Gai Assulin.
But Fati can rest easy in the fact that he’s already- and slightly preposterously- well placed to better Messi’s debut Champions League campaign.
Messi was an unused substitute three times, watching his side take on Milan twice and draw against Celtic, before making his Champions League bow against Shakhtar Donetsk on 7 December 2004.
Two goals from Julius Agahowa ensured Messi’s Champions League debut ended in defeat, which would mark the end of his continental campaign as he wasn’t included in the squad for either leg of Barcelona’s knockout round defeat against Chelsea.
In the post-Messi years, no 16-year-old has made an impact anywhere near the shockwaves Fati has already sent rippling through Spanish football, hence why there will be a special buzz when he takes to the pitch for his first taste of European football with Barcelona.
Of course, Messi followed up his debut European season by winning the Champions League four times, becoming the competition’s second-top goalscorer in the process.
But there’s plenty of time for that, Ansu. No pressure.
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