El Clasico’s reputation has long been enshrined across the globe due to the fierce rivalry between its two components. But what has made it the undoubted game to watch in recent years is that it backs up its posturing on the pitch. In last year’s FIFPro World XI, incredibly, 10 players were from either Barcelona or Real Madrid.
Certainly arguments could be made about the validity of some of the inclusions, but what is not in question is the quality that both clubs possess. And in the first Clasico of the new season at the Camp Nou on Saturday, the cast will be boosted by some fresh stars.
Here’s a look at six players to watch, the first two of which hold no surprise.
Lionel Messi (Barcelona)
There is a danger that Messi’s own brilliance is leading to him being taken for granted. If it had not been such standard fair for him in recent years, a record of 12 goals in just nine appearances to start the season would have people raving. One thing that has been different this campaign, though, is his club taking more precautions over his fitness. For so long a man whose superhuman qualities extended to him remaining remarkably injury free, Messi has begun to develop a worrying propensity for picking up niggling muscle strains. He made his first start since his latest absence against Milan on Wednesday. It took him 23 minutes to get back up to speed and bring his side level with a typical twinkle-toed goal.
Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid)
The player who has for so long battled Messi for the crown of the world’s best and represents an almost direct contrast to the natural, delicate abilities of the Argentinian. Ronaldo’s supreme physical attributes of pace and strength long embodied the style of the Real Madrid team under Jose Mourinho. Questions have been asked about how he would adapt with Carlo Ancelotti attempting to make the side more possession-based. Wider queries about how the team is developing remain open, with Ancelotti claiming -- contrary, in most part to the evidence on the pitch -- to have been playing Ronaldo in a center-forward role. Regardless of those modifications, one thing that remains the same is Ronaldo’s effectiveness -- as evidenced by 15 goals in 12 appearances this season.
The first of the exciting new ingredients in this season’s Clasicos. When Neymar signed for Barcelona, to many in Europe, particularly those to have only watched him in his odd outings in their own continent, Neymar was considered more hype than substance. His hefty transfer fee more seemed more brought about by samba showboating than any real effectiveness. He has yet to hit the heights of which he is capable for the Blaugrana, but he has proven his critics wrong. Far from the undisciplined individualist, Neymar has backed up his humility off the pitch by serving the needs of the team, and Messi in particular, on it. Arguably, what Barcelona now need from Neymar is for him to loosen some of the shackles and showcase more of the individual brilliance for which he first rose to prominence.
Gareth Bale (Real Madrid)
While Neymar has already impressed, the other component that now makes the Clasico a four-man starring cast has barely been seen. A protracted transfer saga that dragged on throughout the summer and caused Bale to almost miss out almost entirely on preseason was never going to be good for the player. And so it has proved. The Welshman has made just one start to date for the club that paid a (perhaps) record fee for his services, as he has suffered repeated minor injuries. A report that his fitness problems were altogether more serious and caused by a slipped disc in his back was angrily denied by Real Madrid. Yet, questions will remain until he begins delivering on the pitch. After two substitute appearances, Ancelotti has suggested that Bale will start on Saturday. Just who he would replace is a major dilemma. With Angel di Maria in fine form, the nagging question remains: For all his quality, did Madrid really need Bale?
Sergio Busquets (Barcelona)
With headlines long having been garnered by the likes of Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, Busquets’s contributions for Barcelona were too often overlooked. That has rightfully begun to change with the defensive midfielder being crucial to Barcelona’s core philosophies both with and without the ball. In possession, Busquets sets the tone with his passing. He has the highest pass success rate in Europe this season and it was no surprise than when Barcelona lost the possession battle for the first time in over five years, it was Alex Song and not Busquets at the hub of the midfield. Without the ball, he is also vital to Barcelona’s pressing and disrupting their opponents in arguably the most crucial zone on the pitch. And under Martino, the defensive side of his game has been called upon more. Against a Madrid midfield clearly missing Xabi Alonso, Busquets has the ability to give Barcelona a key foothold on the way to securing victory.
Raphael Varane (Real Madrid)
Before Real Madrid hosted Barcelona in the first leg of their Copa del Rey semifinal in January, Varane was still talked about in terms of the promise of his ability that prompted Madrid to beat off competition from Manchester United to sign him as an 18-year-old in 2011. Afterward, he had every right to be discussed for his current ability and as one of the world’s best central defenders. Varane secured Madrid a draw almost single-handedly that night -- making goal-line clearances, goal-saving tackles, looking assured beyond his years throughout and, if that weren’t enough, then heading in a late equalizer. Unfortunately, the France international was injured for the start of the season but, now fit, it is hard to imagine Ancelotti not starting him at the Camp Nou. He may well be required to put in another defensive master class if Madrid are to walk away with any points.
Sports reporter, mainly focusing on my native sport of soccer, but also dabbling in some tennis and Formula One.