Young genius brings Maradona dream back to life

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It was the simplest little pass you could ever see, hardly more than a trickle, barely covering 10 yards. So why did it stun the Dutch defence and the great stadium and turn the gaucho hymns of the Argentina fans into one strangled gasp?

Because Lionel Messi, who will be 19 in two days time, is a blossoming football genius of the most thrilling kind. He sees gaps and angles where others don't - possibilities which the worthiest of professionals will spend lifetimes seeking without success.

Esteban Cambiasso, who scored the most exquisitely satisfying goal, so far, of the World Cup in Argentina's 6-0 routing of Serbia & Montenegro, made his comment after a flailing Dutch defender fractionally beat him to the ball that had cut the Netherlands in two. He smiled, partly in wonder, partly in disbelief, and then raised his thumb in the universal gesture of acclaim. Such sweetness of touch from Messi and his team-mate Carlos Tevez regularly irrigated an Argentina performance which perhaps reflected the reality that the vital qualifying work had been done. Their reward of a round of 16 game against Mexico had been guaranteed by a vast goals advantage that could only be wiped away by the impertinence of a Dutch win. The result was that it was hard not to believe that this is an Argentinian team which on most occasions will both play - and win - entirely on its own terms.

Maybe, though, it was inevitable that the impact created last week when the Serbians were overrun in one of the classic performances in World Cup history could not be maintained with the same intensity for another full 90-minute shift.

This was no doubt a disappointment to the great crowd which had been drawn here by that magnetic performance. But it was not as though they faced an evening of cultural deprivation. That could never be so with players of the quality of Messi, especially, and Tevez on the field.

Not the least fascinating aspect of watching the new Argentina is the gauging of Diego Maradona's reactions. He sits on the edge of his seat in a child-like trance, as though he revisiting the very core of his own life, and, of course, what he seeing is the very best of it when Messi goes on a run of breathtaking intricacy and poise. Of course, television has already feasted on Maradona's celebrations of Argentina goals, his dancing in the stands. Already this is one of the prevailing images of the 18th World Cup, the one serious rival to the relentless shots of the Kaiser, Franz Beckenbauer, the legendary German football hero and the head of the organising committee, milking the acclaim due to a brilliantly organised tournament and the momentum that it will surely provide him if indeed decides to challenge Fifa's president, Sepp Blatter.

Meanwhile, Maradona looks at the unfolding confidence of Messi, and maybe Tevez, with the intensity of a man who might be peering at the picture of his own youth, when he slashed through opposing teams with the conviction that on a football field he could do anything, however outrageous, however illegal.

Argentina's coach Jose Pekerman was no doubt made happy enough by his team's work-out, one in which Messi prospered for 69 minutes before he was withdrawn after making his first start for country or club since he was cut down by injury in the Champions' League quarter-final for Barcelona against Chelsea.

Pekerman also returned his playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme to the bench before introducing many people's idea of the most luminous substitute in international football, Pablo Aimar.

Here was another glimpse at Argentina's riches. They are not without serious challengers in the World Cup and if at times the Dutch were caught in the pincer movements of Argentinian brilliance they were never in despair. Indeed, at the end they pressed forward with splendid application.

This, naturally, did not silence the gaucho hymns - or disturb anyone else's sense that Maradona may soon have something more to celebrate than fleeting returns to the brilliance of his youth.