El Clasico: new heroes could emerge

With Lionel Messi recovering from an injury and unlikely to start and Cristiano Ronaldo in indifferent form, all eyes will be on the likes of Neymar, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale, who will be looking to seize this opportunity with both hands. 

The redoubtable Barcelona partnership of Luis Suarez, Neymar and Lionel Messi has been broken owing to a knee injury to Messi. But Neymar and Suarez are shouldering the additional responsibility admirably.   -  Reuters

With Cristiano Ronaldo (right) off-colour, Gareth Bale could well raise his performance a notch or two.   -  AP

Very few sporting events match the grandeur of the  El Clasico, when fierce rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona lock horns. But Saturday’s match at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium has the potential to be marked in history for an entirely different reason. For the past few years, the encounter between the teams has only been about the battle between two of the world’s best players – Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.  But with the Argentine nursing a knee injury and Ronaldo struggling to replicate last season’s magic, Europe’s biggest league match could be the venue for the dawn of a new hero. All eyes will be on the likes of Neymar, Suarez and Gareth Bale, who will be looking to seize this opportunity with both hands. 

Not missing Messi 

Any team in the world would miss a four-time Ballon d’Or winner. That is, unless they are Barcelona! 

Though Messi’s return to the field on Saturday is doubtful, fellow South Americans Neymar and Luis Suarez have already taken over the show for the Catalans with some mesmerising performances. 

Neymar, >who was recently touted by coach Dunga as the best footballer in the world in 2015, has 13 goals in 14 matches this season. The point to be noted is that he scored the last 10 goals during Messi’s absence. At 23, Neymar is already starting to look like a world-class player who is not letting the team or fans miss the Argentine football prodigy.

While the attackers have more than made up for Messi’s lay off, the biggest surprises for Barca have been the outstanding performances of their young guns – Munir, Sandro and Sergi Roberto.

The La Masia graduates have more than made up for the first team absentees. Sergi Roberto has excelled as a right-back, standing in for the injured Dani Alves. Such has been the quality of his performances, that one wouldn’t be surprised if he makes it to the starting XI on Saturday.

Barcelona’s midfield still remains a problem for Luis Enrique, who will be without the injured Iniesta and Rafinha. Ivan Rakitic trained with the Catalans on Monday but is unlikely to start. Sergio Busquets’ performances have been sporadic this season and though Sergi Roberto also impressed in the role of a defensive midfielder, he looks better suited for the role of a right-back. It remains to be seen if the manager will deploy Javier Mascherano in the midfield to nullify the threat posed by Toni Kroos and Luka Modric.

BBC is back

Coach Rafa Benitez will be boosted by the opportunity to field the lethal attacking trio – (Gareth)  Bale, (Karim)  Benzema and Cristiano (Ronaldo). This will be the Welshman’s first match at the Bernabeu since October 17, when he succumbed to a calf injury in a 3-0 win over Levante.

Real Madrid averages a staggering five goals per match this season when football’s most expensive front three has started together and the home fans must be hoping they can rekindle the magic that helped the team win the Champions League and Copa del Rey in 2014. Benitez might also be hoping that French striker Benzema shakes away his off-field problems, to spearhead their attack against Barca, who haven’t conceded a goal in their last four matches.

Ronaldo, who has been off-colour this season for his high standards, will still be a key figure for the Los Blancos. The Portuguese has amassed 15 goals in the 21 matches he has played against Barca.

 The timely return of Colombian James Rodriguez, who will team up with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos in the midfield, will provide Real Madrid a solid cover and flair to counter the free-flowing Barcelona. The outstanding Casemiro gives Real a different option, should they go into a defensive mode. Left-back Marcelo will miss the match with an injury while defender Sergio Ramos also faces a tough fight to be fit for the match but keeper Keylor Navas is expected to recover from a groin injury.

A high-voltage encounter

Luis Suarez and Jeremy Mathieu scored for Barcelona in the last El Clasico as the team won 2-1 at home in March 2015. The MSN combination of Messi, Suarez and Neymar was better that day, as they ran riot in the opposition half. But Barcelona will now have to rely on some non-Messi brilliance to overcome a Real Madrid side that is beginning to find its stride under new manager Rafa Benitez. One thing is for certain – when Real Madrid take on Barcelona, there is never a shortage of drama!

  Dugout videos