In the days when I was lucky enough to enjoy Sky Sports at home, I used to follow Spanish league football a lot more than the Premiership, and one game still stands out.
It was not an obvious classic between two giants or a famous upset, but a seemingly routine fixture for the title favourites against the team placed bottom of the table.
Barcelona versus Albacete. May 1st, 2005, and the day Lionel Messi scored his first goal for Barcelona.
The hype had been building on the continent for some time about a special player who was about to break through into the Catalan club’s first team, but excitement hadn’t reached England except to those who had a keen interest in Spanish football
At Real Madrid, David Beckham was in his second season and Michael Owen his first, and last.
Ronaldinho meanwhile was lighting up the Camp Nou and would later that year claim a second successive FIFA World Player of the Year award, but they were the only reasons for most casual English football fans to pay attention to events in the Spanish league.
But back to Messi, who was hailed as the ‘next’ Maradona.
We’d heard that before about many players, most notably in the case of Ariel Ortega who, despite obvious talent, never reached his potential and failed to live up to the huge expectations on him after moving to Europe.
In Messi’s case, he really was set to be the next Maradona, with the Argentine legend himself backing up the claims, and he made his first big mark in the fixture with Albacete.
With five games to go in the title race, Barcelona had a three-point lead over Real Madrid with a game in hand. However, the lead had been 11 points less than a month earlier and the pressure was being applied by their Madrid rivals.
A 17-year-old Messi had appeared in seven of Barcelona’s games during 2004/5, making his debut in the city derby with Espanyol aged 17 years and 114 days. Most of those appearances had been as a late substitute and his only start had been in a meaningless December Champions League game in Ukraine.
Against Albacete in round 34 of the season’s calendar, it would be another brief cameo for Messi, though a highly memorable one.
Into the 88th minute of the game, a solitary Samuel Eto’o goal had given Barcelona a narrow lead as Messi prepared to make his entrance.
The atmosphere which greeted him was one of that welcoming a legend onto the field of play rather than a youngster who had less than three hours of senior level experience, but the anticipation of great things was evident.
Not even two minutes had gone by before Messi got on the end of a Ronaldinho pass and produced a delightful chip over the Albacete keeper, Raul Valbuena. The ball dropped into the top corner of the net but was wrongly ruled out for offside.
35 seconds later, he sent a dangerous low cross into the box for another Barcelona youngster, Andres Iniesta, but his attempted shot was blocked.
If nothing else, Messi’s presence had lifted the whole stadium and the noise reached another level when on 90 minutes and 15 seconds, Messi lobbed the on-rushing Valbuena, and this time his goal stood.
It all happened within three minutes of his entrance into the game, and ensured the points were sealed. The title followed two weeks later – Barcelona’s first for six years.
After being crowned World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho joked that he couldn’t be the best player in the world as he wasn’t even the best player at his club.
The debate has moved on since then, and only Pele and Maradona are considered valid players to which Messi can be compared.
Incredibly still aged just 24, there’s plenty of time for Messi to end even that debate.