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Last Updated: Monday, 5 June 2006, 07:15 GMT 08:15 UK
Messi comes of age
By Tim Vickery
South American football reporter

Lionel Messi
Messi is recovering from a thigh injury he picked up in March
After 63 minutes of last week's warm-up match against Angola, Argentina brought Lionel Messi off the bench.

The 18-year-old played a half-hour of football that could be very significant, both in the short term and in the long.

The immediate consequence, of course, is that Messi is back and looks set to make a contribution to Argentina's World Cup campaign.

The Barcelona star was in superb form last June when he took Argentina to victory in the World Youth Cup and was fast-tracked into his country's plans for Germany 2006. But then came his first full season as a professional.

There was no knowing how he would stand up to it, or whether he would have any gas left in the tank come the end of the season.

Then he broke down against Chelsea in March, rushed an attempted comeback, broke down again and found question marks being placed against his World Cup participation. The doubts can now surely disappear.

Messi has the talent to run the game from the middle of the field

He may not be risked in every minute of every game, but Messi will take the field in Germany - and if last week's evidence is anything to go by, he will do it very well.

Against Angola, Messi was not used in the position in which he has usually featured for Barcelona and also in his short international career.

The left-footed star normally cuts in from wide on the right. This time, though, Messi was given a more central role. In fact, he took over playmaking duties from Juan Roman Riquelme.

This could be of huge importance to Argentina's campaign. Riquelme is a magnificent player, but he can have his off days. One of them came last year in the final of the Confederations Cup.

"We'll have to see what other things we can do if Roman's not playing well," mused coach Jose Pekerman after his side's 4-1 defeat against Brazil. But there was no obvious plan B.

Argentina's Juan Roman Riquelme and Jose Pekerman
Jose Pekerman's side have come to rely on Juan Roman Riquelme

The team, it was agreed, were suffering from 'Riquelme dependence'. That is no longer the case - or at least, the degree of dependence has fallen.

Pekerman is now aware that if Riquelme is injured, suspended, tired or just out of sorts, then Messi has the talent to run the game from the middle of the field.

Twice against the Angolans he skipped past defenders and slipped through passes for team-mates who then smacked their shots against the woodwork.

Admittedly there are more difficult challenges than taking on Angola in the last half-hour of a friendly.

But watching Messi last week it was hard to escape the conclusion that his long term future lies in the centre, rather than stuck out on the wing.

It is where most of the truly great players operate - like, for example, Messi's two most illustrious compatriots Diego Maradona and Alfredo di Stefano.

They were not only exceptionally talented, they were also blessed with the ability to read the game.

Playing down the middle opened up the pitch for them, giving them the best possible chance to use their skill and intelligence to direct the course of the match.

Maybe Messi is their heir. Maybe that will become apparent in Germany this summer.

Argentina team guide
22 May 06 |  Argentina
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31 May 06 |  Squad selectors
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25 May 06 |  Schedule
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