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El Clasico Preview: First El Classico without Ronaldo and Messi in 10 years

Victor Valdes, Gabriel Milito, Rafael Marquez, Carles Puyol, Eric Abidal, Ronaldinho, Deco, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o.

Iker Casillas, Fabio Cannavaro, Sergio Ramos, Pepe, Gabriel Heinze, Wesley Sneijder, Mahamadou Diarra, Robinho, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Raul, Julio Baptista.

These were the starting XI for Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou in December 2007 when the two powerhouses of Spanish and world football met without either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Messi was injured back then and Ronaldo was still collecting goals and leaving defenders for death in the Premier League. Now, Messi has a broken arm and he was seated on the plush seats of Camp Nou in mid week with a sling instead of on the pitch dispatching Inter Milan with sheer professionalism. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has moved to Juventus for a newer challenge as the Bianconeri chase European glory. There have been 68 Clasicos between Messi and Ronaldo and only the former has outscored the latter – such is the level attained by them. Their absence, serves a reminder, once again, that the rivalry was (is?) one to cherish and this fixture is probably the end of an era.

The talking points as Real Madrid travel to Barcelona for the 238th Clasico.

Messi/Ronaldo factor

As Messi went down injured in the league fixture against Sevilla, he tried to pick himself up, as he mostly does, and continue. The objective wasn’t that game alone, the aim was Real Madrid – eight days away. Considering how abject Real Madrid have been in the recent few games, Messi’s absence won’t make much of a serious impact either but it is the Clasico – Messi is the leading scorer, biggest game on the planet and a fixture players strive to be part of. Even a Messi, with a sling, brings that intimidatory power to the pitch which could make a difference. And yet, he would only be in the stands with his name missing from the squad named on Saturday.

Even when they’re not there, they’re a topic of discussion – that’s the achievement level of both Messi and Ronaldo. The Portugese moved in the summer to Turin with no clear reason for the move. Rumours suggest unhappiness with the way the club hierarchy didn’t come to his support on tax evasion charges. Now that he’s gone, the club is struggling with finding a potent striker or just about any goalscorer at this stage. When that 451 goals in 438 games hole appeared, club chose to find an answer within instead of splashing the cash for a big signing. Gareth Bale was an obvious candidate to step up but following a bright start, his injury troubles returned and is not the leader (yet) that Ronaldo was. Benzema, expected to be unshackled after Ronaldo’s exit, threatened to be a goal scoring machine but has soon fizzled out while finding it difficult to get comfortable with the No. 9 position.

After going five games without finding the back of the net and creating club record goal drought, 2-1 win over Viktoria Plzen in the Champions League alleviated some pressure on Real Madrid manager Julen Lopetegui. But his future is still in the air and a defeat could well mean early curtains on his club managerial debut. Madrid’s director of institutional affairs, Emilio Butragueño was asked if Lopetegui would be still be on the bench for the Clasico after the win against Plzen, he mumbled “yes, yes”. Well,  Lopetegui has indeed made it to Sunday but whether he will go on to next weekend depends significantly on how Real Madrid fare in front of over 90,000 fans.

He had gone unbeaten with the Spanish national team before mayhem two days from the start of the World Cup. It resulted in him losing his job in favour of getting the hot seat at the Santiago Bernabeu and the 137th day in charge may just be his last. The high pressing strategy and style earned dividends early on – five wins and a draw – including a dominant show against AS Roma where the focus had moved from individuals, breaking on counters to winning back the ball and building with possession. Since then, though, all plans have faltered. The chopping and changing the lineup to find the X-Factor has only made things tougher.

Who is taking over from Messi?

Asked to comment on missing Messi, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde said, “We have to accept it. It doesn’t bring me out in a rash to hear the word ‘Messidependency’.” But Barcelona need to find a creative solution to find the gap left by Messi’s injury. Dembele is the most straightforward answer to this argument but his commitment and quality remains inconsistent. He was poor against Sevilla and did not feature against Inter in the mid-week. Arthur, likened to Xavi, Ivan Rakitic and Sergio Busqets bossed the midfield then.

Ahead of them is Luis Suarez who has six goals in 10 games against Real Madrid – scoring every season. This season he has four goals and six assists and is once again expected to be a key element in the contest.

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