Real Madrid v Barcelona, arguably the biggest game in club football, is ready to take place once more this weekend at the Santiago Bernabéu.
With the usual deluge of plots and sub-plots being poured over during the run up to La Liga’s showpiece event, some of the more intriguing aspects involve the various playmakers taking part from both clubs.
Invariably the protagonists of the Clásico down the years, here are five points concerning the ‘Number 10s’ on show who could affect the overall result.
1. Will Madrid’s scoring nemesis beat injury?
The will he, won’t he make it saga has rumbled on ever since ‘La Pulga’ sustained his knee injury at the end of September, however the latest prognosis is positive for fans of Barcelona.
Just seven days ago the star Number 10 was being primed for a starring role ‘from the bench’, but now indications are that Messi could be handed a start, with Luis Suarez this week stating he’s “looking sharp in training”.
In either case Real Madrid know just how dangerous their Argentine nemesis is. Today marks exactly 10 years since Messi made his Clásico debut; wearing an unfamiliar number 30 shirt, his direct and bewitching dribbling ability soon became all too familiar to his opponents in white who were defeated 3-0.
Messi didn’t score that day – settling for just the two assists – but has gone on to become the highest ever scorer in the Clásico with 21 goals in his 30 appearances against Real, aged just 28. Who would bet against him adding to this collection if he makes it this Saturday?
Whether he plays or not is down to the coach, the medics and how he feels but he has been looking sharp in training,” Suárez said.
Messi is a player that makes a difference in all games and in Clásicos he has always made a big impact but we will have to see if he is ready.
2. Will returning James start?
One player who looks to have overcome their own injury problems with perfect timing for the Clásico is Real Madrid’s very own Number 10: James Rodriguez.
The Colombian has started just once for Real Madrid this season and will now have to hope his promising recent cameos, and subsequent form whilst away on international duty in the World Cup qualifiers, will be enough to convince Rafa Bentitez he deserves a starting place.
The Colombian playmaker managed the full 180 minutes and was impressive during the two tough games away with his country, scoring in the draw at Chile whilst narrowly suffering defeat against Argentina. Having returned to Madrid injury-free, James will have just two full training sessions with Los Blancos’ coaching staff in a bid to win a starring role.
The mercurial goals he can provide from midfield areas could prove crucial, although Benitez’s history of caution-first football, in what is the coach’s debut Clásico, means he’ll likely be directly competing against another playmaker to start, so may have to settle for a place on the bench.
3. Will Rafa’s defensive impetus benefit or hinder Isco?
If James’ injury hit season opened the door for Isco to establish himself a regular starter under Rafa Benitez, the Colombian’s return now poses complications.
Isco has enjoyed an extended run in the side and has good recent form; and, like his fellow playmaker, can operate in a variety of midfield and forward positions.
This season Isco has been used more in the forward line; mostly as part of a front three system, though he’s also been paired with only Cristiano Ronaldo on one occasion, which theoretically could happen again if Karim Benzema is not available, giving him a possible slight advantage over James heading into this game.
However, Benitez may also choose to pair Ronaldo with the recently returning Gareth Bale, due to concerns over Isco’s poor scoring return. The tricky Spaniard has just one goal to his name from his extended run in advanced positions whilst James has scored three times in his limited time on the pitch – indeed, the Colombian’s most recent strike came after replacing Isco as a substitute just before the international break.
Will Benitez choose the extra work-rate and endeavour of Isco, or the increased goal threat from James?
4. Iniesta: Barca’s main Clásico man.
The biggest club game on Earth needs players who know exactly what’s in store and how to perform in front of the watching world.
In the absence of Xavi – a player tied with Madrid’s great Paco Gento as having made the most appearances in the Clásico (42 times) – and possibly Messi due to injury, Andres Iniesta will be the Catalan giants’ main flag-bearer.
So often a stand-out performer in a sea of stars, Iniesta now must take on this added responsibility, but will likely do so with the minimum of fuss.
Now club captain, Iniesta has racked up 31 appearances against the old enemy, and has proved time and again he has the knack of staying calm, composed and performing gracefully whilst the intensity and frenetic nature of the occasion affects others – Iniesta tends to always shine.
5. Battle of the unorthodox: Sergi Roberto v Luka Modric.
Of all the stars on show, possibly the most intriguing sub-plot may be the battle that pits two of the slightly more unorthodox playmakers directly against each other in central midfield.
Luka Modric and Sergi Roberto are two examples of how modern day Number 10s have had to evolve and adapt, either through circumstance, tactical preference or both.
Modric is now a mainstay of Madrid’s central midfield with his guile and passing ability complementing his perpetual movement around the area he patrols.
Barcelona’s thin squad and poor record with injuries this season has saw Sergi Roberto grasp his chance with both hands feet. Originally seen as an orthodox Number 10, the Barca academy product is enjoying an extended run in the side which has seen him occupy a number of positions – from right-back and wide-forward, to central midfield – not unlike his coach Luis Enrique during his own playing years.
Sergi Roberto’s hard running and energy has been most notable, however this has not been without the technical quality which saw him graduate from La Masia – a recent mid-air spinning back-heeled assist for Luis Suarez a case in point.
Modric is by far the more experienced of the two, having been a staple part of Madrid’s first-team since 2012, whilst Sergi Roberto’s sum total of minutes played in previous Clasicos is just 20.
With both likely to clash in central midfield, their tackling and pressing abilities will be as much of a priority as any traditional playmaking assets they possess. Can youthful exuberance win out or will the previous know-how prove too much in the biggest of games.