Lionel Messi vs Ansu Fati: Which Barcelona star was the better player at 17?

Lionel Messi and Ansu Fati celebrating

In September 2019, Lionel Messi reserved exceptional praise for a 16-year-old prodigy born in Guinea-Bissau. 

That's not a sentence you'll probably ever hear again apart from when Ansu Fati is involved.

After the teenager broke through at Barcelona last season, Messi said: "He has the quality to become one of the best." 

That might have been a surprising remark at the time but Fati is already beginning to fulfil his enormous potential.

A year on from those comments, the winger is one of the most free-scoring players in the Barcelona side and is currently ahead of Messi in their scoring charts. Fati is still only 17 but has four goals in just five matches this term.

It's rare that someone usurps Barcelona's main man, but we are beginning to witness a changing of the guard. 

This is a young player with the world at his feet and it's timely too, particularly with Messi's tenure at Camp Nou potentially ending in 2021.

Ansu Fati celebrates scoring for Barcelona

The Argentine looked set to leave in the summer before a remarkable U-turn saw him stay in Catalonia. However, with his contract up at the end of the season, Fati looks primed and ready to take on the baton of Barcelona's leading light.

For the past 15 years, it's been about Messi. He broke through under Frank Rijkaard and scored his first senior-team goal for Barca in May 2005. At the time, Fati was just two years old.

It's remarkable, therefore, that they're now playing in the same side, scoring alongside each other too.

Hungarian opposition Ferencvaros felt their wrath on Tuesday night as the 17-year-old scored to become the first player in Champions League history to find the back of the net on two occasions before he'd turned 18. Funnily enough, Messi also scored.

In 24 matches played together, they have combined for four goals, a tally that will surely only get better as the season progresses. 

Messi and Fati playing together - stats

The meteoric rise of Fati has been breathtaking. Having moved to Seville at the age of six, he joined Barcelona's famous La Masia just four years later.

Fast forward another six years and he was already featuring for the first-team. In the Barca academy, you receive a special football education but Fati is a rare exception, even for Catalonian football. He has taken in all the guidance necessary and despite his small 5 foot 10 frame, is dominating opponents. 

He has pace, the ability to dribble and dare we say it, the finishing ability of Messi. In fact, at the same age, there is one clear winner - Fati.

Ansu Fati & Lionel Messi embrace

The teenager is streets ahead of the Barca legend at the age of 17 and if he continues in the way he's going, will break numerous records. He is the youngest scorer in Champions League history and with just under two weeks until his 18th birthday, has more goals than the Argentine.

At 17, Fati has played 38 games, scoring 12 times. As for Messi, he'd only played on nine occasions and had found the net just once. It's incredible just how stark the difference is.

Remarkably, Messi had only beaten the goalkeeper on 11 occasions for Barcelona by the time he was 19.

Messi & Fati market value comparison

Of course, it's important not to go overboard. We've heard many stories of failed young players and as Messi once revealed, it's crucial not to overplay him: "I’d like them to bring him (Fati) on gradually, like they did with me when I started, taking things nice and easy and without putting pressure on him." 

The Spain international is still being eased in, something that's sensible given Barca's history. They know all too well what overhyping one of their brightest prospects can do.

You only need to look at Bojan Krkic. The Spaniard made his Barcelona debut in 2007/08 and finished the season with 12 goals in 48 matches.

Viewed as someone who could follow in Messi's footsteps, he never lived up to expectations and after a spell with Stoke City, is now playing for Montreal Impact in MLS.

Bojan and Lionel Messi

Therefore, it could all change dramatically for Fati if the club isn't careful. Bojan was of a similar nature at the same age but never had what it took to succeed and score consistently. 

Fati, though, is becoming the heartbeat of Ronald Koeman's team in a dark time for Barca. They were obliterated 8-2 by Bayern Munich only a few months ago and they're still trying to pick up the pieces of that demoralising loss. 

Fortunately for the Spaniard, he should be able to emerge from Messi's shadow.

If the diminutive Argentine does leave next summer, it will be over to Fati to pick up the mantle and become the star. Cast to the back of the room, Bojan never had such luxury. 

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