Games don't get much bigger than the annual Real Madrid vs. Barcelona clashes, and Saturday's installment has a number of added selling points.
El Clasico, as the fierce rivalry is now known, has become something of a cup final in itself, but it is now more than that; a global phenomenon featuring the world’s five most expensive players, countless other household names and massive stakes. And despite this game coming relatively early in the season, this encounter has more riding on it than most.
Here are some storylines to look out for ahead of the storied rivalry's next chapter:
The return of Luis Suarez
How compelling, not to mention convenient, that the four-month ban that Luis Suarez served for biting Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup expires at one minute past midnight on Saturday; the day of the first Clasico of the season. Barcelona’s official website has declared that the Uruguayan “is ready to make his debut” in the match, but the big question is whether will he start or not.
He played for Uruguay against Oman and Saudi Arabia a couple of weeks ago, while his Barcelona teammates and coach Luis Enrique have been talking up his fitness in training. But the debate does not only concern Suarez’s fitness. It is also where he plays: most likely, starting on the right and moving centrally, but always on the move, creating space for a deep-lying Lionel Messi to move into.
Such is the chemistry between Messi and Neymar at the moment – both have scored in Barcelona’s last five games (compared to three matches out of 59 last season) – that a new player, even one as talented as Suarez, will inevitably need time to adjust. The Catalan press seems certain that Suarez will start, perhaps because Pedro is not in the best form at the moment, and Munir has been out of the side.
Had Saturday’s opponent been anyone else, there would be no dilemma. But the next question would of course be if he does start, how long will he last? And is he more dangerous as a threat coming off the bench? We will soon find out.
Messi and Ronaldo's record chase
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo both insist that team achievements are more important than individual ones (perhaps with the exception of the Ballon d’Or in the case of the Portuguese) but both are on the verge of unique moments on Saturday. Messi has scored 250 career La Liga goals and is just one away from equalling the 60-year-old record held by former Athletic Bilbao striker Telmo Zarra.
Spanish Football League president Javier Tebas said that the game could potentially be paused to commemorate the moment, were it to happen, though the Spanish federation has not received any such request. You sense that Messi would hate any fuss.
His adversary, Ronaldo, has scored 15 goals in eight league games, more than 16 La Liga clubs have managed in their entirety. His total of 20 in all competitions is on course to smash Messi’s other-worldly 73 goals in 60 games in 2011-12. Ronaldo has started this season in fantastic form, and has scored in each of his last 10 games. One more, and it would be a Spanish record.
Can anyone breach the Barcelona defense?
One of the biggest surprises of La Liga is that no team has scored past Barcelona in its opening eight league matches – especially as Luis Enrique has shuffled his pack at the back. His preferred back four is likely to be (from right) Dani Alves - Jeremy Mathieu - Javier Mascherano - Jordi Alba. The unsung hero of that quartet is the summer signing Mathieu, a converted left back who became the first center back signed by Barcelona in five years.
The Frenchman has provided much-needed solidity in front of new goalkeeper Claudio Bravo, at a time when Carles Puyol has retired and Gerard Pique’s brain-freezes have become more than occasional. That said, this back line is far from invincible – PSG did score three against Barcelona in the Champions League – and the numbers (or lack of them) do flatter the unit. If Barcelona keep a clean sheet against Real Madrid, though, then we might be able to really talk about a great defensive renaissance.
No Bale; Isco’s chance to shine
Real Madrid has not looked like it has missed Gareth Bale too much since his recent injury blow. Without the Welshman, the club has won twice, scored eight goals and conceded none. But his absence might be welcomed by Barcelona, against whom he scored his sizzling match-winner in the Copa del Rey final with a run from inside his own half to undoubtedly cause nightmares for center back Marc Bartra.
The Bale blow has meant a slight tweak to Carlo Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 system, with James Rodriguez moving further ahead and Isco playing in midfield. The former Malaga man cost €30 million and was Ancelotti’s most-used player last season, with 53 appearances. This year is his chance to break out, and his outstanding performances against Levante (5-0) and Liverpool (3-0) suggest he is getting there. Malaga built its team around him as the No. 10 under Manuel Pellegrini; the hierarchy is slightly different in Madrid, but Isco is proving himself all over again.
This really is the richest game in the world
Combine the cost that each squad spent on its players, and this is the most expensive collection of players in world football. According to figures in France Football, Real Madrid’s squad has cost €571.4 million to put together, and Barcelona’s cost €274.6 million – a total of €846 million. Barcelona’s relative cheapness is partly because half of the squad comes out of La Masia, the club-run academy.
The teams have the five most expensive players in the world (in terms of transfer fee) – Bale, Ronaldo, Suarez, Neymar and James – and every player is an international. The most-capped is Iker Casillas with 158 games for Spain, the least is Dani Carvajal with two. Between them, they have won 1489 caps (Real Madrid 718 and Barcelona 771).
Which players have won more trophies in their career? Surprisingly it is Madrid’s, with 121 to Barcelona’s 105. These two sides have won 65 percent of all La Liga titles (54 out of 83), far more than the top two in any other league.
In Italy, Juventus (30 titles) and AC Milan (18) make up 43 percent; in England, Manchester United (20) and Liverpool (18) combine for 33 percent; Bayern Munich (24) and Nurnberg (9) make up 31 percent in Germany; in France, Saint-Etienne (10) and Marseille (9) make up 25 percent.
The game will be showed across the world, with the 6 p.m. local time (noon ET, beIN Sport) designed for maximum global TV exposure – even if an antiquated regulation in England forbids live football being aired until 5:15 p.m. means English audiences will miss the opening quarter of an hour. Ronaldo moaned that the kickoff was too early, given that Madrid played on Wednesday night. We might hear a repeat of that if the result goes against the reigning European champion on Saturday evening.
For this one, the world will be watching.