Barcelona and Real Madrid will renew a 111-year old on-field argument at noon ET Saturday when Cristiano Ronaldo leads Los Blancos into Camp Nou where Lionel Messi and his mates await to battle.
Though it pits the world’s two most iconic and skilled players against each other, the 225th official El Clasico contest holds far more intrigue than just Ronaldo and Messi.
When Spain’s most successful and financially flush teams take the field together this weekend with the eager eyes of world soccer aimed upon them, these questions will loom large:
Each team made a huge splash in the silly season as Barcelona added dynamic Brazilian attacker Neymar and Real Madrid broke the worldwide transfer record to recruit Gareth Bale from Tottenham Hotspur.
Thus far, Neymar has integrated will into the Barcelona side, learning to complement the existing stars, while Bale continues to fight regain the fitness and form he lost from his turbulent transfer-talk laden offseason.
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti seemed to suggest in the buildup to the contest that Bale could feature from the start of this match. The Welsh winger came off the bench in Real Madrid’s 2-1 midweek UEFA Champions Leauge victory against Juventus, but was ineffectual.
Neymar has played in high-profile derbies in Brazil, notably the Santos-Palmeiras derby by the same name. Bale is familiar with the North London Derby from his time with Tottenham Hotpsur. Neither have ever played a game of this intensity and quality, though.
“The Clasico is the most important game for any player and is the match every player wants to play in. It is the game where each player wants to play his best football,” Neymar said ahead of the match.
The question remains, can they?
What will Barcelona’s response be to dropping its first points of La Liga?
The Blaugrana played to a scoreless draw last weekend away to Osasuna and now are only three points clear of Los Blancos and one ahead of Atletico Madrid. The result ended a run of 13 wins on the trot and marked the first time Barcelona was held goalless in Spanish league play since January 2012. Despite controlling 76 percent of possession, Barcelona failed to net any of its dozen shots. They will need to be more ruthless in front of goal if they want to take full points Saturday.
Is Carles Puyol ready to compete at this level again?
Barcelona captain Carles Puyol made his long-awaited return from seven months on the sidelines with a right knee knock last weekend against Osasuna. Slotting straight in to his position in the center of defense, the 35-year-old long-locked Spaniard played the full 90 minutes without incident and helped secure the shutout.
Fellow Spanish defender Gerard Pique is hampered by a hamstring injury and is a doubt for this clash.
Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino will have to decide if Puyol is prepared for the physicality and speed of El Clasico.
“Just to return to training with my teammates and be feeling good is a great joy for me so imagine what it would be like to be involved in a Clasico,” Puyol told reporters. “It is a game that everyone wants to play in, I just have to prepare myself and wait to see what the manager decides.”
Can Real Madrid win the midfield battle?
In his first campaign with Real Madrid, Ancelotti has tinkered with his formation. The Italian originally opted for his preferred 4-4-2 before shifting of late to a 4-3-3 with a midfield triangle of Sami Khedira, Luka Modric and Asier Illarramendi providing the numbers, skill and power to tip things in Los Galaticos’ favor. Will he stick with the strategy? Ancellotti will need to find the right balance or risk Barcelona dominating the flow of the game, imposing its will and pace.
Barcelona has built its success on controlling possession and that starts through the center of midfield. Sergio Busquests is among the best in the world at thwarting opposition attacks and imposing his team’s will on the flow of a game. Once the reigning La Liga champions get hold of the ball, it’s difficult to take it off of them.
“It’s difficult to wrest the ball from them and the important thing is that when we have it we do something positive, good interchanges of passes, and if there is space counter attacks,” Ancelotti said in a pre-match press conference.
“The idea is to go and play and try to show our qualities, our game; have the courage and the personality to play football, not just to defend and wait.”
The next goal Lionel Messi scores in an El Clasico match will make him the derby’s all-time leading scorer with 19. Tuesday’s match against AC Milan marked his first start since Sept. 28 after dealing with a thigh injury. He marked the occasion with an equalizer to give Barcelona a point.
Cristiano Ronaldo, 1B to Messi’s 1A in terms of individual skill on a soccer field, has scored in nine of his last 10 competitive contest including a double to down Juventus on Wednesday.
For all the other big names and storylines in this contest, the result will probably go to whichever team’s star soars the highest on Saturday.