James Lawton: Fabregas and Messi herald a new dawn of beauty
Is there anything better in football, or in all of sport, than the sight of an old master capturing again the best of his talent?
It was hard to think so after Alessandro Del Piero this week ushered in a blaze of brilliant European action with a superb strike for Juventus against Real Madrid, but then long before the end of an extraordinary burst of virtuosity stretching from Old Trafford to the banks of the Bosphorus he was besieged by challengers.
Del Piero's goal may not have been dislodged from the top spot — not in this corner, anyway — but there is a growing sense that the Champions' League might just be involved in a new and potentially thrilling phase of its brief history.
It may be an infant suspicion, but it seemed to be saying that the sheer power exhibited so formidably in the all-Premier League final on the banks of the Moscow River last spring is about to be challenged, if not surpassed, by a different and potentially more beautiful game.
Ruud Gullit, who should know about these things after his contribution to Milan's domination of the old European Cup, advanced the theory while watching the performances of Arsenal and Barcelona.
Naturally, he was rebuked. Where were the masterful defenders such as Rio Ferdinand and John Terry and a dreadnaught like Nemanja Vidic as Arsene Wenger and Josep Guardiola attempted to translate their artistic vision into ultimately competitive football? Where was the sinew to go along with the style?
Gullit's reaction was intriguing. Maybe there was an alternative route. Maybe there was football so mesmerising in its fluidity and touch that new rules were already being drawn up. Maybe Wenger and Guardiola were working towards another kind of game, a process which, after all, would not exactly be novel. What is football if it doesn't take on a new light — and what was it becoming before FIFA reacted to the nightmare of Italia 90 and banned the backpass?
Maybe indeed there glimpses of new rules this week shaped potentially by the two players who operated on a level that at times went beyond anything else we had seen, including the superbly predatory instincts of Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney.
Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas were, plainly, the players Gullit had in mind.
Though born two months apart in 1987 and separated by half a continent this week, Messi and Fabregas might have been joined at the hip.
It is a disconcerting image no doubt for Wenger, painfully aware of the pressure now building on Fabregas to return to the embrace of his native Barcelona and the club from where he was taken as a boy in an act of larceny so audacious and brilliant it is probably unrivalled in the history of professional football.
Yet when Fabregas on one night cut the defence of Fenerbahce into a thousand pieces, and then on the next Messi toyed with Basle so utterly, a uniting of these talents seemed like a command from the football heavens.
Wenger naturally will fight it with all the means he has because if the departures of such as Anelka and Vieira and Henry could all be rationalised in one way or another, the loss of Fabregas would not much cloud the future as dismantle it.
This week Fabregas and Messi were twin riders of football dreams. They made so much of the rest of football seem prosaic.
Diego Maradona, himself is already on the record, saying, 'I have seen the player who will take my place in Argentina's football and his name is Lionel Messi.'
Fabregas's own portfolio is beginning to bulge with such achievement — a haunting reality for Wenger as he strives to end the years of drought.
Some may say that Gullit is a flawed witness to the Arsenal adventure. He is, unforgettably, the man who promised Newcastle sexy football at a time when the birds and the bees were on another planet, but at the end of a week when the beautiful game was more than a empty phrase there had to be a temptation to believe.
Most inviting of all was the idea that Messi and Fabregas, joined or as separate as the brightest stars in the sky, are indeed the future of football.