Rightly considered one of the main attractions of the domestic calendar in Spain, matches between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid invariably throw up their fair share of flowing football, excitement and goals. As if that were not enough, this year's opening league encounter between the two also saw a couple of sublimely gifted Argentinian youngsters go head to head.
Aged 20 and 19 respectively, Lionel "La Pulga" Messi and Sergio " El Kun" Aguero are without question the two brightest stars of these giants of the Spanish game and are currently out in front in the league scoring charts.
Friends, team-mates in the blue and white of Argentina and
rivals on the odd occasion, the duo with the world at their feet
have nothing but admiration for each other. "Aguero is
amazing," commented Messi in the build-up to the Camp Nou
showdown. "He does things that look impossible and it's
very difficult to stop him."
Keen to repay the compliment, Aguero expressed similar appreciation for his compatriot. "Messi is the complete player if you ask me. He's got the lot. Like me, he's still got so much more to learn and I reckon Messi-Aguero is the perfect partnership."
The spotlight was firmly on the talented twosome as they stepped out on Sunday afternoon, but within a matter of 15 minutes it was clear that Messi would be taking the spoils on this particular occasion. The man they call 'The Flea' sprung into action early, cutting in from the right flank and firing in a low centre that Rojiblanco keeper Abbiati spilled to allow Deco to open the scoring. Four minutes later the pint-sized livewire was at it again, receiving a short pass from Thierry Henry on the left this time before playing a one-two with Ronaldinho and stroking the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
Aguero, meanwhile, was getting little change from the Azulgrana defence. Starved of possession, El Kun made little headway as Atletico struggled and was substituted 15 minutes into the second half as Barça ran out comfortable 3-0 winners.
After making the grade in a trial with Barcelona as a 13-year-old, the mercurial Messi was handed the opportunity he needed to fulfil his obvious potential, signing a contract that would help him develop both physically and professionally. A first-team debut came in 2004 and it was not long before he muscled his way into the starting line-up, impressing the watching world with his range of skills and composure.
Even by his own supremely high standards, however, the start he has made to the 2007/08 season has been nothing short of spectacular. Coach Frank Rijkaard may have the so-called 'fantastic four' at his disposal, but there is no doubt which of his superheroes is leading the way at the moment. "He's (Messi's) got some qualities that are hard to even pick up on," enthused the Dutchman. "He's a firm candidate for the Golden Ball and he's an absolute joy to watch. I think he deserves to win it."
Fellow sensation Aguero became the youngest debutant in the
Argentinian league when he stepped out for Avellaneda side
Independiente at the tender age of 15 years, one month and three
days. With his career already on a steep upward curve, he packed
his bags in 2006 and signed for Atletico Madrid, where he teamed up
with homegrown striking superstar Fernando Torres.
Although far from plain sailing for the new boy, the fanatical Atletico fans liked what they saw and when El Nino moved on to pastures new in the close season, it was the teenage Aguero who carried the hopes of the success-starved Colchonero faithful. With the men from Madrid for once making a promising start both in the league and the UEFA Cup, those hopes look to be well placed, even if Barcelona and Messi undoubtedly have the edge at the moment.
The two starlets were team-mates in the hugely impressive Argentina side that took the honours at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, with Messi carrying off both the adidas Golden Ball and the adidas Golden Shoe. Two years on, and in Messi's absence, it was the younger of the two gunslingers who inspired the Albiceleste to glory at Canada 2007, with Aguero emulating his compatriot by pocketing both the individual awards this time around.
And while El Kun was scaling the heights in Toronto, Messi produced a string of sparkling performances at the Copa America in Venezuela, driving the Argentinians to the final only for arch-rivals Brazil to make off with the continental crown, a disappointing outcome that mirrored Argentina's and Messi's travails at Germany 2006 12 months earlier.
Aguero's first taste of full international football came in a 3-0 friendly defeat to the Brazilians in London in September 2006. Having enjoyed several opportunities since then and with the opening qualifier for South Africa 2010 a matter of days away, it is safe to assume both he and Messi will be figuring large in coach Alfio Basile's plans.
While comparisons between two players rarely do justice to either of them, it is perhaps inevitable that they are often likened to each other. Blessed with pace, a fierce shot and mesmerising dribbling skills, Messi is becoming an increasingly composed performer with an enviable gift for the unexpected. What he lacks in stature he makes up for with guile, shielding the ball from defenders like few others in the game today.
Similarly diminutive, Aguero has been giving his markers an equally testing time of late, drawing on his dribbling abilities and a disconcerting change of pace to unhinge defences time and time again.
And whatever else happens on the Spanish domestic scene this season, there can be no question that Messi and Aguero will have plenty to say for themselves as the drama unfolds.