Football world awaits Messi's return for El Clasico
Football world waits with bated breath to watch Barca superstar resume rivalry with Real's Ronaldo
REAL MADRID v BARCELONA
(Sunday, 1.15am, Santiago Bernabeu Stadium)
It is a rivalry that has come to define not just El Clasico but also the parameters of modern football.
This weekend, the world will watch in anticipation of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi resuming their personal battle of one-upmanship when Barcelona take on Real Madrid.
There will be no shortage of stardust on show at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Sunday morning (Singapore time) as La Liga's battle for supremacy resumes.
Yet it is the yearning for the return of the contest that transcends the boundaries of club and country which currently occupies the hearts and minds.
Since 2008, the pair have vied at the pinnacle of the global game through a combination of mercurial talent, continued evolution and refinement.
Records and accolades continue to be broken and shared in equal measure by a pair who are so different in abilities yet so alike in their pursuit of perfection.
However, this will be no ordinary match-up between the talismans of Real and Barcelona.
Both players head into the showdown with points to prove to those around them as much as they do to their opposite numbers.
For Messi, the potential comeback at the Bernabeu is about more than simply completing his rehabilitation from the knee-ligament injury suffered against Las Palmas that has ruled him out for the past eight weeks.
In his absence, Neymar and Luis Suarez have enjoyed a rich scoring vein to catapult Barca to a three-point lead over Real.
The Brazilian's ascension, in particular, threatens to steal focus from his returning teammate, previously unassailable at the fulcrum of the club's front-line for almost a decade.
That impending threat to his crown from the Nou Camp's heir apparent has reflected the fall from grace in his head-to-head battle with Ronaldo.
Neither Ronaldo nor Messi will acknowledge their self-evident rivalry is a forethought in their minds, yet their continued obsession with bettering the other's accomplishments is what drives them in their relentless quests of betterment.
There was a time when the Argentina captain would stroll to virtually every accolade in world football without so much as a formidable challenge from Ronaldo or his contemporaries.
With his adversary now on the front foot, those days are over.
The once hunted has been forced to become the hunter.
Ronaldo, similarly, has seen his personal momentum suffer as a result of the fading threat from Messi.
Even by his own prolific standards, the former Manchester United man has faltered, mustering 13 goals in 15 outings compared to the 22 plundered after the same number of games just 12 months ago.
Real's unprecedented injury crisis has been a contributing factor, but the Portuguese's preoccupation of feuding with the defensive-minded coach Rafael Benitez has provided an overriding and ugly backdrop to his on-field stagnation.
The Spaniard's safety-first approach is founded on principles of equality; an alien concept to Ronaldo, previously held on a pedestal at the Bernabeu, at a club with an inherent culture for panache and grandiose.
For his sake, as much as Barcelona and the rest of the world, Messi needs to show signs of rejuvenation in the Spanish capital this weekend.
It is 10 years this week since Barcelona's 28-year-old Lionel Messi played his first El Clasico, in which he has scored a record 21 goals in 30 matches against arch-rivals Real Madrid.
By the numbers 21
- Real Sociedad v Sevilla
- Espanyol v Malaga
- Valencia v Las Palmas
- Deportivo v Celta Vigo
- Sporting Gijon v Levante
- Villarreal v Eibar
- Granada v Athletic
- Real Betis v Atletico Madrid
- Getafe v Rayo Vallecano
Xavi: Barca hardly missed Messi
No Lionel Messi, no problem.
Former Barcelona star Xavi Hernandez said his old team have not missed the four-time Ballon d'Or winner, ahead of the first El Clasicio of the season with Real Madrid on Sunday morning (Singapore time).
Messi hasn't played for Barca since sustaining knee ligament damage in a 2-1 victory over Las Palmas in September. However, there is an outside chance he could make a dramatic return against Barca's biggest rivals in the Spanish capital on Sunday morning.
But, with or without him, midfielder Xavi, who now plays for Al Sadd in Qatar, says Barcelona are capable of beating Real.
"Messi is a great player without a doubt and I believe he plays a crucial role in Barcelona in every game," said Xavi, who played more than 500 times for Barcelona in a career stretching 17 years.
"But I must say as well that the team are playing well now without him... and scoring plenty of goals in the process which means that Barcelona manage to do well without him.
"They didn't suffer from his absence, which is a good sign."
In Messi's absence, Barcelona have recorded four straight league victories, propelling Luis Enrique's men to the top of La Liga, three points ahead of Real in second.
Strikers Neymar and Luis Suarez have scored 10 goals apiece since the Argentinian was sidelined.
The duo could once again lead the line on Sunday morning with Spanish media suggesting that Barca may not rush Messi, who returned to training on Monday, back into the starting line-up as a precaution.
This weekend's match is the first El Clasico in which Xavi will not play a role in the past 17 years.
He said it is always difficult to predict the outcome of an El Clasico, but added that Barcelona are "capable of repeating the treble this season".
Last year, the Catalan giants won the Champions League, La Liga and the Copa del Rey, one of the most successful seasons in the club's 116-year history.
Xavi added that he was enjoying his time in the Gulf but ruled out becoming Qatar's national coach one day.
"I don't think so, I don't think about my future now, all my concentration is towards my club, Al Sadd," he said.
Al Sadd are third in the Qatar Stars League.