Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi has not played since suffering a knee injury against Las Palmas on Sept. 26. Getty Images

After so long being highlighted by the battle between the two greatest players of their generation, the world’s premiere club match may have to adopt a different narrative Saturday. Cristiano Ronaldo will be the star attraction of the Real Madrid team at the Bernabeu, although his influence in the side and future at the club is now an ever-growing source of debate. But the man with whom he is forever destined to be compared, Lionel Messi, may not be in the Barcelona lineup at all, as he continues to battle back from a knee injury.

Messi has not played in nearly two months and there have been regularly altering reports in recent weeks over whether he would win the race against time for El Clásico. He returned to full training early this week, as did teammate Ivan Rakitic, strongly suggesting that, providing there are no setbacks, he will be present in the squad that makes the trip to the Spanish capital. Whether he starts the game, though, is a very different matter.

“We don’t know whether Leo will start the game or be on the bench, but he's a player who makes the difference,” teammate Luis Suárez said on Wednesday, according to Barcelona-based publication Sport. “He proved that against Atletico Madrid [in September], when he came on for the final 30 minutes and won us the game.”

In the past, there would likely have been a huge temptation to thrust Messi straight back into the starting lineup for a contest of such magnitude. Not only is it a meeting between two of the world’s great rivals, but also between the teams currently first and second in La Liga. However, perhaps for the first time since Messi became a global superstar, Barcelona appear more than capable of coping without their talisman.

The chief reason for that is the partnership between Suárez and Neymar. Since Messi’s injury, the pair have scored 10 goals apiece, accounting for 20 of Barcelona’s 23 goals. It has been remarkable not only how the pair have continued to display such unselfishness, even without Messi’s presence, but have also stepped up to fill the Argentine’s void. The duo shows an admirable lack of ego both on the pitch and with their comments away from it.

“Messi is on top of everyone, for what he's done and what he's doing,” Suárez said. “And Neymar at the moment is just behind Leo, and I'm enjoying playing by his side. He could be the second best player in the world right now.”

In the past there have been forwards at Barcelona who struggled with having to play second fiddle to Messi, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or appeared cowed by his presence, like David Villa and Alexis Sánchez. Now Barcelona have the incredible fortune of having two world-class forwards in addition to Messi who can thrive both with him and without him. It should mean that there is no desire to risk rushing Messi back from injury prematurely, as there plainly has been in the past. Who better to have to bring off the bench, either to help turn the game in your favor or to help consolidate your advantage, than Messi?

It is a very different situation for Real Madrid. The question of how to get the best out of Ronaldo and his chief sidekick, Gareth Bale, continues to prove a conundrum. Manager Rafael Benitez’s first big decision when taking charge this summer was to move Bale into a more influential, central role. But reports suggest that the decision has left Ronaldo with less than a warm feeling towards his coach.

There is evidence to support that theory, too. Ronaldo has openly flirted with the prospect with a move away, particularly to Paris Saint-Germain, while on the pitch his influence has often been diminished. That was particularly visible in Real Madrid’s 3-2 defeat to Sevilla before the international break, a result that means Real Madrid trail Barcelona by three points in the table going into the first Clásico of the season.

But neither Ronaldo nor Real Madrid have been helped by an injury to Karim Benzema. The France international is hugely influential in leading the line and bringing Ronaldo and others into the game, both through his link-up play and movement. But he has now been out for over a month, during which time he has also spent time in police custody in France over an investigation into an alleged blackmail. His place in the team on Saturday remains in doubt, particularly with reports suggesting he has suffered a relapse.

The same is true for goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who missed the defeat to Sevilla and international matches with Costa Rica. Sergio Ramos is expected to feature, though, as he continues to battle through a shoulder problem. And, having played 180 minutes for Colombia over the international break, James Rodríguez could make his Real Madrid start since August.

Probable lineups

Real Madrid
G: Navas

D: Danilo, Pepe, Ramos, Marcelo

M: Modric, Casemiro, Kroos

F: James, Bale, Ronaldo

G: Bravo

D: Dani Alves, Pique, Mathieu, Alba

M: Rakitic, Busquets, Iniesta

F: Munir, Suárez, Neymar