"Brazil's best footballers are playing for the national team and in Europe from a very early age these days," remarked Pele last year. A look at the nation's leading revelations over the past decade certainly supports his theory.

Ronaldinho, Kaka and Robinho were all teenage internationals and joined Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan and Real Madrid respectively as 21-year-olds, while Alexandre Pato was already the property of the aforementioned Italian giants at 17 and seems destined to win his first cap before his 19th birthday.

Every rule has its exception, however, and this one's goes by the name of Thiago Neves. When the 2007 Brazilian Championship got underway last May, he was a little-known attacking midfielder who, at 22, had only turned out for modest Parana and in Japan's second tier.

But in less than 12 months, Thiago Neves has transformed himself into one of the most electrifying, productive and coveted Brazilian footballers. A classic No10, his ability to beat opponents and provide that killer pass - or cross - makes him a consistent creator of chances.

Even more eye-catching, though, is his ability to score from distance. As accomplished at subtly curling the ball into the back of the net as he is at crashing home ferocious, swerving shots with his left foot, à la former Seleção great Eder, he was the source of nightmares for goalkeepers throughout 2007.

First, he helped Fluminense to Copa do Brasil glory, which guaranteed their place in this season's Copa Libertadores, and then he played the leading role in them finishing fourth in the Brazilian Championship, winning the Placar Golden Ball in the process.

International recognition
Thiago Neves has since picked up from where he left off last term, thrilling audiences, inspiring his employers and charming Dunga, who has handed him successive national team call-ups, the first of which came for the friendly against Republic of Ireland in February.

"Even though I only got the chance to train with the squad, it was great to be with the Seleção," he said. "I returned to Fluminense with more confidence and I think it showed."

Dunga seemed to think so and, following a series of exceptional performances in the Tricolor colours, including a hat-trick in a 4-1 defeat of Flamengo in the Taca Guanabara and an irrepressible display in a 6-0 win over Arsenal in the Copa Libertadores, Thiago Neves duly retained his spot in the Brazil party for the friendly against Sweden on 26 March.

Just to be selected alongside the best players in the world is great, but I really hope I get the chance to play this time
Thiago Neves

"I was very nervous before the announcement but I'm delighted to have kept my place," he admitted. " Just to be selected alongside the best players in the world is great, but I really hope I get the chance to play this time."

Title targets
A run-out at the Emirates Stadium would likely elongate the list of heavyweights willing to part with big money to lure playmaker to Europe; a list reportedly fronted by AC Milan and Benfica. Not that Fluminense president Roberto Horcades has any plans to cash in on his prized asset.

"Thiago is not going anywhere," he insisted. "Fluminense is not a selling club but a buying one. We are fighting for the Libertadores and world titles."

O Fluzão's assault on South America's biggest club prize will continue at Libertad tonight. Having taken four points from a trip to LDU and the visit of Arsenal, victory in Asuncion would send Renato Gaucho's side top of Group 8 on goal difference - and leave them in a commanding position to reach the knockout phase.

"It's difficult to play in Paraguay," warned Thiago Neves. "It will be a tough game but let's see if we can repeat our performance against Arsenal."

It may have taken him a little longer than Ronaldinho, Kaka and Robinho to announce his immense potential, but it seems inevitable that the world will be seeing a lot more of Thiago Neves in the future. Fluminense supporters will be hoping one such opportunity arrives at the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008 in December.