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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Fabregas pushing way into Spain lineup

By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com

Two of world soccer's brightest young stars may go head-to-head Wednesday in the Champions League, with Cesc Fabregas hoping to shake off a knee injury when Arsenal hosts Lionel Messi and Barcelona. Both have been in sizzling form.

Messi and Fabregas, no doubt, will look to carry their club form into the World Cup.

Here's a look at some prominent younger players (25 or under) and how they've fared this season, with the World Cup around the corner:

Lionel Messi, 22, Barcelona and Argentina
After leading Barcelona to the Champions League and Liga double last season, Messi might have been due for a letdown. It hasn't happened. Messi continues to tear apart opposing defenses and scored a brilliant hat trick against Real Zaragoza recently. The first was a header, the second featured Messi dancing past defenders, and the third came courtesy of a curled effort from the edge of the box.

He leads the division in both scoring and assists.

Messi is being mentioned in the same breath as Argentina manager Diego Maradona and Pele, widely considered the two best players of all time, even if the reigning world player of the year doesn't put himself in that class.

"He's maturing in giant strides," Maradona told reporters last week.

Indeed, it's only a matter of time before Messi transfers his Barca form to the national team.

In Messi and Real Madrid's Gonzalo Higuain, 22, not to mention 21-year-old Sergio Aguero, the future is bright up front for Argentina.

Grade: A

Wayne Rooney
Rooney injured his ankle in the closing seconds of Man U's loss on Tuesday.

Wayne Rooney, 24, Manchester United and England
Based on club performances alone, Rooney would be nominated for next year's player of the year alongside Messi, especially if Manchester United claims a fourth straight Premier League title, although that run was put into jeopardy with the ankle injury Rooney suffered Tuesday in a Champions League game against Bayern Munich. Rooney will be out two to four weeks and will miss Saturday's first-place EPL showdown against Chelsea.

Rooney has certainly picked up the slack in the absence of buddy Cristiano Ronaldo, banging in goals -- more than 30 in all competitions -- from just about everywhere. He's even become a prolific header, often putting away crosses from speedy winger Luis Valencia.

"He's scored so many goals this season it's incredible," teammate Ji-Sung Park, a vital cog in United's machine, told reporters in mid-March. "But everyone always knew he had the talent and ability to do it. This season he has grown up."

Unlike Barcelona and Real Madrid without Messi and Ronaldo, respectively, United struggles for goals without Rooney. (Yes, United scored four without Rooney last weekend.)

England manager Fabio Capello now must pray Rooney's ankle and niggling knee injury clear up in time for South Africa.

Grade: A

Cristiano Ronaldo, 25, Real Madrid and Portugal
The stats look impressive for Ronaldo, especially considering the dapper winger missed a chunk of the season due to injury -- 17 league goals in 20 games and seven in the Champions League, leading the competition through the round of 16.

But Ronaldo and his bag of tricks couldn't get Real past Lyon in the second round of the Champions League, while most of his Liga goals have come against teams outside the top 10. Real so desperately wanted to end its Champions League drought this season, given the final is being held at the Bernabeu.

And Ronaldo hasn't been able to forge a successful partnership with another expensive signing, Kaka.

Does it so far justify his world-record transfer fee of 80 million ($119 million)?

Grade: B+

Cesc Fabregas, 22, Arsenal and Spain
Where would Arsenal be without Fabregas? With Dutch hit man Robin van Persie gone so early in the season, probably simply challenging for the final Champions League spot rather than chasing the title.

Fabregas' importance was highlighted against Aston Villa late in December. With Fabregas nursing a hamstring injury, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger kept him on the bench. Struggling at 0-0, though, Wenger saw enough and brought on Fabregas. He promptly scored two goals, one via a stunning free kick.

It's been a while since Ronaldo, Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard wasn't the top-scoring midfielder in the Premier League, but Fabregas could top England international Lampard in 2009-2010. (Gerrard is having a subpar campaign.) His playmaking hasn't suffered, as Fabregas leads the league in assists.

Given Spain's depth, Fabregas still isn't assured a starting spot in the World Cup.

Grade: A

Jozy Altidore, 20, Hull City and USA
Villarreal presumably expected a finisher, similar to another American-born striker, Giuseppe Rossi, when it bought Altidore from Major League Soccer in 2008.

He's still learning that part of the game, but his hold-up play has earned praise from former Hull manager Phil Brown and experienced Dutch forward Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink this season. Without scoring, the on-loan Altidore sparkled against Arsenal in March, winning headers, pushing back defenders and generally causing mayhem.

Altidore figures to be pivotal as Hull desperately tries to avoid relegation, and his strength earned the Tigers a penalty last weekend against Fulham. No doubt he'll look forward to battling against the likes of Rio Ferdinand and John Terry in South Africa.

As for the future, when Altidore gains a little more experience from his days in Europe, watch out. He could just be another Brian McBride or Kevin Davies.

Grade: B

Karim Benzema, 22, Real Madrid and France
Benzema isn't yet a starter with Les Bleus, behind veterans Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka, and his stint with Real Madrid won't convince embattled manager Raymond Domenech to tinker.

Benzema hasn't had much chance to live up to his 30 million price tag -- mere change for Real -- because he's mostly languished on the bench. It's 14 starts and not counting following Real's 3-2 win against city rival Atletico Madrid on Sunday.

Maybe Benzema should have stayed in Lyon, scored more goals and forced Domenech to use him. Yoann Gourcuff, 23, is a regular with France after leaving A.C. Milan to join humbler Bordeaux, where he's in the lineup week in, week out.

Grade: C

Giovani dos Santos, 20, Galatasaray and Mexico
The speedy left-footed winger made waves at Barcelona, drawing comparisons with Messi. Perhaps the weight of expectation was too much for dos Santos, and he failed to hold down a spot at Tottenham (following a loan spell at unheralded Ipswich of the Championship).

He was subsequently shipped to Turkey's Galatasaray on loan, reunited with Frank Rijkaard. Dos Santos is still struggling for consistency and hasn't displayed the form he exhibited for Mexico last year, although, like Altidore, the upside is huge.

His 21-year-old international teammate, the overhyped Carlos Vela, has flattered to deceive at Arsenal, paying the price for not having two good feet.

Grade: C+