This Saturday the world will take a seat to enjoy another thrilling performance on Santiago Bernabeu, which will welcome El Clasico. As any other game between fierce rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid, this match will surely provide a lot of entertainment and football perfection for the fans of both clubs.
Here are the key factors that will decide the outcome of the biggest game in world football:
The return of the MSN trident
Barcelona’s fans are looking forward to Saturday because Messi is expected to return from the knee injury that sidelined him for seven weeks. The Argentine recovered quicker than first thought and is set to sit on the bench - a much anticipated return, especially important for Luis Enrique’s tactical decisions.
Neymar and Luis Suarez managed to prove that they are equally capable of keeping Barcelona on the right track in Messi’s absence, despite a turbulent start in the last-minute win against Bayer Leverkusen and the away loss to Sevilla.
Since Messi’s injury Neymar netted 10 goals, while Suarez added 8 more for a total of 18 goals in 9 games. Barcelona went to win seven games, drew against Villanovense and lost only one against Sevilla, which puts the Catalans three points ahead of Real Madrid before Saturday’s Clasico. Most importantly, their performance showcased that Barcelona is not a one-dimensional team anymore. The duo managed to fit into Messi’s shoes and the best feature of it was the mutual support the strikers gave to each other.
However, the effect Messi has on Barcelona does not need explanation. The reunion of the star-studded MSN trident will mean less squad changes for Luis Enrique and a continuation of the 141 goals in 175 games that the trio managed to score while together on the field. Furthermore, Messi has the best track record against Real Madrid from the players in Barcelona’s squad - the Argentine has 21 goals and 12 assists in 30 games against Los Blancos.
The realistic expectation is that La Pulga will start from the bench and will be available for the second half. His post-injury condition should be treated with caution to avoid further complications, something no one in Barca’s camp want to see. On the other hand, this is the biggest fixture of the Spanish league and many fans would like to see Messi starting from the first whistle.
The role of Gerard Pique
Barcelona’s defence has long been the target of both opposing teams and critics. Since the departure of Carles Puyol the team couldn’t establish the same security at the back four. The Catalans are on a four game clean sheet streak coming into El Clasico and will try to continue it on Saturday.
Pique is the backbone of the Blaugranas' defence and much of his performance in the past couple of years has been strong, but inconsistent. He had a slow start to the season last year but by the end of the campaign he looked very much like the defender every Barca fan wants to see.
This season however, the Catalan has started slowly again. The team has conceded the unprecedented 19 goals since the start of all competitions, which represents 50% of the 38 goals conceded for the whole 2014-2015 season. The injury plague that Luis Enrique had to battle resulted in a constant rotation of defenders with regular use of players in positions that are not typical for their skills. It will come down to a great deal of focus and effort from Pique to be able to direct the back four, especially against the fast-paced Real Madrid.
The duel between the posts: Claudio Bravo vs. Keylor Navas
Claudio Bravo is expected to start against Real Madrid, as he usually does in all La Liga fixtures. On the other end, Keylor Navas will surely feature between the posts, after he recovered from his injury. The goalkeeper’s importance hasn’t been of such magnitude in recent Clasico encounters, however this time around both of the goalkeepers will play a huge role in deciding the outcome. Why is that?
Well, one might expect that to be the case of any game, but looking closely at their stats shows why their performance will be setting the stage for the whole game.
Barcelona has been particularly weak defensively this year, to large extend due to Marc Andre Ter Stegen’s inconsistent performances in the beginning of the season, conceding 14 goals in 15 games.
Keylor Navas is entering the match as the goalkeeper with the better stats with only three goals conceded in nine league games. Claudio Bravo on the other hand has conceded five in seven Primera matches. Los Blancos' stopper is leading in shot saves as well, boosting a dazzling 90% of stops.
It will require a great deal of attacking precision to put the ball past Navas, however Barcelona has enough firepower in the likes of Neymar, Suarez and potentially Messi.
Claudio Bravo will try to continue the clean sheet streak he is on and stop the efforts of Ronaldo, Bale and Benzema, if Rafa Benitez decides to start with the recently recovered Frenchman.
It will be a thrilling performance depending on many other factors. The availability of Rakitic would be decisive in which players Enrique will have to use - will Sergi Roberto start in the midfield or he would not feature at all? Will Mascherano partner with Pique at the back? Who would play alongside Neymar and Suarez in case Messi is not featured in the starting eleven? Who will win?
All these questions will be answered on Saturday in Madrid.
It is time for the biggest game in football. It is time for El Clasico.