By Daniel Edwards | South American Football Editor
As Santos star Neymar prepares for Sunday's Club World Cup clash against Barcelona, he must know that, win or lose, he has cemented his status as the most exciting teenager currently operating in world football. Goals, titles and praise have been coming to the 19-year-old striker constantly over the course of 2011, and he has the chance to cap a brilliant year by helping the Brazilians to be crowned world champions.
In his way, however, stand Barcelona and their Argentine maestro Lionel Messi. 'La Pulga' is no stranger to teenage hype, having made his debut at just 17 years old back in 2004; and by the time he blew out the candles on his 20th birthday, the little playmaker had already established himself in football's group of elite stars.
Goal.com compares the two players in their adolescence, and rates who was the more accomplished talent before saying goodbye to their teenage years.
|THE ARGENTINE & THE BRAZILIAN: HEAD-TO-HEAD
||DATE OF BIRTH
|Attacking mid/ forward
|70/26||TEEN CLUB APPS/ GOALS
|12/4||TEEN INT. APPS/ GOALS
|MENTAL ATTRIBUTES (Marks out of 5)
|Messi's commitment to the game and willingness to work has never been in doubt, ever since he made his debuts for both Argentina and Barcelona. He already looked assured on the ball, although in those early days there was a tendency to try and do things on his own rather than search for a team-mate; something quickly remedied as he bedded into the Barca team.
He was also no shrinking violet on the pitch even as a wiry teenager. This was evidenced in his debut for the Argentina team, when he was sent off just 47 seconds after entering the pitch following a clash with Hungarian defender Vilmos Vanczak.
Neymar has been the star of the show almost since his first game in Santos, and at times it has shown. His aggression used to be channelled into petulant acts rather than extra effort on the pitch, but since the arrival of Muricy Ramalho his increased maturity has been impressive. Protests to referees are still common, however, and this still needs to be worked on if the teenager is to fulfil his potential.
|The young Messi relied heavily on his left foot to beat both defenders and goalkeepers, and the right boot was primarily for standing on in the early days of his career. He was already a scary prospect going forward with the ball at feet, and starting to show signs of ability from free kicks and penalties which have continued to develop.
It is Neymar's ability in front of goal which grabs the headlines, but his talents as a creator should also be acknowledged. He loves to drift out on the wing and, if not able to use his prodigious dribbling skills, pick out a team-mate with a pinpoint cross or pass.
The weakest part of his game remains from the dead ball; not an issue in Santos with Ganso and Elano in the side, but his insistence on taking 'Panenka' penalties saw several misses, while a dispute with Dorival Junior led to the coach being put out of a job in 2010.
|SET PIECES & PENALTIES|
| PHYSICAL ATTRIBUTES (Marks out of 5)
|Messi has worked tirelessly on his physical attributes in the last four years, but when he burst on the scene the little Argentine - who needed growth hormones in his formative years - was not much of a threat with his head. A low centre of gravity aided his strength and ability to hold off defenders, but he was far from the stocky No. 10 we see in 2011.
His pace was always prodigious, helping him avoid the heavy clashes and compensating for his weaknesses. It is hard to believe now, however, that the teenage Messi was somewhat prone to injury, and missed several months of the 2006-07 season with a torn thigh muscle.
Neymar's fitness, meanwhile, is nothing short of astonishing. The Brazilian has played no fewer than 66 games during 2011 and barely missed a single fixture due to physical complaints, a statistic made even more impressive when considering the punishing travel and training schedule imposed by two international competitions (the South American Under-20s and the Copa America) and Santos' Copa Libertadores campaign.
Slightly taller than 'La Pulga' at 1.74m, Neymar still poses little threat with his head against the gargantuan defenders of the Brasileirao, and prefers to use speed and skill rather than brawn to beat his marker. The preferential treatment given to forwards in Brazil raised questions over how Neymar would stand up to the more physical Libertadores, but he held his own against the bruisers of Cerro Porteno and Penarol, and showed he would not shy away from the heavyweights.
|76 / 100
||OVERALL||75 / 100
There is nothing to choose between the two players, and there are important considerations on both sides to think about before judging who shined brightest in their formative years. With over double the games played, and three times as many goals, Neymar is far more experienced in professional football and far more effective than the Argentine was at the same age.
This is tempered though by the level of football, as the Paulista Championship in which the Brazilian has scored a decent proportion of his strikes cannot compare to the rigours of La Liga and the Champions League where Messi had to cut his teeth. By the slimmest margin, then, the Argentine can be considered a more accomplished player at 19 than his Santos rival.
'La Pulga's incredible entry into a team that boasted the likes of Ronaldinho cannot be underestimated, and wonderful moments such as a Clasico hat-trick against Real Madrid in a gripping 3-3 draw just gives him the edge over Neymar. His time may come, but despite several unforgettable moments in the white of Santos, the teenager has yet to prove himself against world-class opposition the way Messi did at the same age.
Come Sunday in Japan, however, all that could be about to change.