TV: Real Madrid–Barcelona (Saturday, noon ET, BeIN Sports and BeIN Sports en Espanol.)
UNTOLD STORIES. Even by the unparalleled social media standards of Real Madrid and Barcelona, Saturday’s Clasico comes chock-full of fascinating narratives. So many in fact that we’re going to completely ignore all these subplots.
Iker Casillas is once again unchallenged in goal for Madrid, and looking shaky. Messi refused to be substituted by new Barcelona boss Luis Enrique last week, but both have since downplayed the incident. Key members of each team are now flourishing elsewhere, as Xabi Alonso (Bayern Munich) and Angel di Maria (Manchester United) have left Madrid’s midfield (to the dismay of Ronaldo), while Cesc Fabregas (Chelsea) and Alexis Sanchez (Arsenal) have left Barcelona.
We don’t have time to dwell on Pepe’s chances of seeing red as he and his trusty hatchet chase Messi around the Bernabeu, or the odds Suarez will be dressed as Dracula for Halloween, or the impact of the second most expensive player in soccer history missing this game, as Isco’s creativity will replace the speed and power of an injured Gareth Bale, or the likelihood that Xavi, who has played sparingly, will get the starting nod over Croatian Ivan Rakitic, whose energy has been welcomed in Barca’s midfield.
We also have no idea how the Champions League schedule that provided an extra day of rest for Barcelona after beating Ajax 3-1 at home Tuesday, will affect Real Madrid, playing on just two days rest after Wednesday’s 3-0 win over Liverpool in England.
We simply have nothing more to say about any of that.
THE OTHER GUYS. Neymar is currently Barca’s leading scorer after a swift recovery from a broken back that ended Brazil’s World Cup hopes. The 22-year-old star was overly deferential during his first season in Spain, but the trio of Messi, Neymar and Andres Iniesta is now thriving as many envisioned it would.
Enrique said Suarez will indeed make his first appearance for Barca, in his first game eligible after suspension, and he may start. With Neymar and Suarez now up front, Messi dropping deeper may become more commonplace. As Leo did for Argentina, which ran its entire offense through him en route to the final in Brazil this summer, when Messi's otherworldly passing became apparent to any who had yet to notice.
Real Madrid’s firepower has overwhelmed opponents, with 30 goals in eight La Liga games, but Los Merengues may lack bite. Sami Khedira has only recently returned from injury; so it’s been Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in midfield, fine players with similar gifts that may find it difficult preventing Barca’s possession from dominating proceedings. But of course, Madrid is often at its most dangerous when forced to defend, before counterattacking at warp speed.
CRISTIANO & LIONEL. Ronaldo has done the impossible. His sustained excellence has done more than reveal the considerable substance beneath his style; it has forced us to contemplate the possibility that he may yet go down in history as Messi’s equal, a notion wholly unthinkable as recently as two years ago.
Messi monopolized soccer’s throne with an unprecedented four consecutive Ballon d’Ors between 2009 and 2012, honors acknowledging the most dominant stretch by any player in European club soccer history, making it obvious Ronaldo was destined for a life of fame, fortune, supermodels, and second best, as he was in the voting for three of those four golden balls.
But since Messi sustained a hamstring injury against Paris Saint-Germain in April of 2013, which has lingered, Ronaldo’s ruthless consistency earned him a second Ballon d’Or last January, his first since 2008, then helped him capture Real’s elusive 10th European Cup last spring, leaving Ronaldo the heavy favorite to win his third Ballon d’Or three months from now.
Two of the greatest players ever to lace up cleats with little in common who clearly want nothing to do with one another, and yet the game they love does nothing but draw them closer.
BY THE NUMBERS. Barcelona has not allowed a La Liga goal through eight games. Saturday will mark the first time since April of 2005 that these clubs will be on the same field when neither is the reigning La Liga champion.
Messi scored his 250th La Liga goal last week, leaving him just one shy of Telmo Zarra, who scored 251 in the 1940s and 1950s for Athletic Bilbao. Sitting on the cusp of one of his most significant records ever, Leo made it clear becoming Spain’s all-time scoring leader is secondary to the outcome in Madrid.
"The record is the least important, what is important is that we have a good game and get the win," Messi told reporters.
Which sounds exactly like what Leo says about every other record, right before he breaks it.
Ronaldo broke the 71-year-old La Liga mark for fastest ever to 15 goals last week, in Madrid’s eighth game. A scorching start which now sees Cristiano and Lionel’s La Liga scoring rates nearly identical since Ronaldo’s arrival from Man United in the Summer of 2009, which coincided with the start of Messi’s first season as the leading scorer at Barca in 2009-10.
These eerily similar figures are downright spooky.
La Liga games played 2009-15: Ronaldo 172; Messi 176
La Liga goals per game 2009-15: Ronaldo 1.116; Messi 1.114
PARTING SHOT. These clubs are both off to hot starts, although each has faced just one other elite club so far this season -- with both coming out on the losing end.
Barcelona lost a thriller in Paris, leaving Barca behind PSG in their Champions League group. Real Madrid lost to reigning La Liga champion Atletico Madrid over two legs in August’s Supercup before losing at Atletico in Madrid's La Liga derby, which is the biggest reason Real enters this game four points behind first place Barcelona -- it’s also why a loss at home could be crippling for Real’s title aspirations.
This is the way it has always been in Spain, dropping points is always devastating, even with Atletico elbowing its way back into the rarefied air of Spanish royalty, and when the big boys meet it’s bound to be a spectacle. Of course the Clasico is always so much more than that, tense, exciting and famously unpredictable.
Untold eyeballs all over the world will be glued to TV sets on Saturday to see the world’s best players meet in the sport’s biggest rivalry while representing the game’s biggest clubs and employing distinctly different philosophies.
This is el Clasico, this is why we watch -- and if you can’t get fired up for this game, it may time to take up shuffleboard.