Rakitic is what makes Barcelona tick
Rakitic is the indispensable cog in Enrique's devastating machine
BARCELONA v REAL MADRID
(Tomorrow, 2.30am, StarHub TV Ch 202)
Once the king of Sevilla, now the slave at Barcelona.
Former Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna coach Miguel Angel Lotina was spot-on in his assessment of Ivan Rakitic, although he did not mean it in a derogatory way.
"This was not meant as a slur, more a reference to the work he ably carries out in the Barca midfield," said the 58-year-old.
Indeed, while the fearsome MSN (Messi, Suarez and Neymar) trident may hog all the limelight for Barcelona, it is Rakitic who makes the terrific trio tick.
However, it wasn't always clear that the 28-year-old would fit in at Barcelona.
At Sevilla, the Croat was the undisputed leader not by virtue of possession of the captain's armband, but through his vision and drive in the playmaker's role.
The Catalan giants shelled out 18 million euros ($27.5m) to lure him to the Nou Camp in 2014, but Luis Enrique had another role for him.
The Barca boss wanted Rakitic to cover as much ground as he could in midfield, providing the platform for the MSN trio to wreak havoc in the opponents' box.
Then there was also the unspoken intention to replace a legend on the wane. Rakitic - it still sounds ridiculous to say this now - was the man earmarked to fill the void that would be left behind by Xavi Hernandez.
Two years on, the Switzerland-born midfielder is now the indispensable cog in Enrique's devastating machine.
When Barcelona host Real Madrid at the Nou Camp tomorrow morning (Singapore time), Rakitic will likely take up his usual position on the left of a midfield three to provide the ammunition for the most sublime three-man attacking partnership the world has ever seen.
These days, Rakitic moves on the field like he has Barcelona flowing in his veins, but it came about only because he was willing to reinvent his game.
First, there had to be an acceptance that he will always live in the shadows of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar.
He is the all-action midfielder tasked with the responsibility of breaking up play and building up attacks from deep.
Then there is the endless running that comes with the job of playing in a side that attack with such high intensity from start to finish.
It was a far cry from his starring role at Sevilla, where he was most effective as an attacking midfielder.
His highlight for the Sevillistas came when he skippered them to the Europa League title in the 2013/14 campaign, which included a Man-of-the-Match performance in the final against Benfica.
His importance to Barcelona is evident from the fact that he has played more times for Enrique than any other Barcelona player.
His seven goals (five in La Liga, two in the Champions League) make him the club's top scorer outside of the front three.
The runaway La Liga leaders have lost just three matches in all competitions this season, and Rakitic did not start in two of them.
While he admitted before that his primary job is to "work for" Messi, Suarez and Neymar, he could also be counted on to deliver the goods on his own.
In last season's 3-1 win over Juventus in the Champions League final, Rakitic scored the first goal that came at the end of a 16-pass move.
Real fans will recall the embarrassment of being on the receiving end of a 4-0 home thumping by their fiercest rivals last November.
Rakitic's contribution featured a 95.7 per cent passing accuracy in a match which he did not misplace a single pass in Real's half.
His consistency and quality have convinced the Nou Camp faithful that he is a worthy owner of the No. 4 shirt once donned by Ronald Koeman and Pep Guardiola.
But it may be his humility that got him there.
As a 16-year-old, when he was a youth player coming through the FC Basel system in Switzerland, he received lucrative offers from Chelsea and Juventus.
However, Rakitic spurned them and stayed on at Basel, believing that he had to learn the ropes one step at a time.
Barcelona are now the beneficiaries of his decision.
Suarez the team player
Uruguayan star Luis Suarez believes his success in turning around Barcelona's fortunes in the past two seasons has been thanks to adapting his game to strike partners Lionel Messi and Neymar.
Heading into tomorrow morning's (Singapore time) El Clasico against Real Madrid, Suarez (above) is Barca's top scorer with 43 goals in as many games this season.
The Catalan giants remain on course to repeat the La Liga, Champions League and Copa del Rey triumph they won in Suarez's debut campaign last season.
Barca lead Real by 10 points with just eight games remaining ahead of tomorrow morning's clash, with a Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid and Copa del Rey final against Sevilla to come.
"La Liga is very different to the Premier League," said the former Liverpool star, who moved to Spain in 2014 in an 82-million euro ($126m) deal on the back of Barca's first trophyless season for six years.
"Everyone knows that it's completely different and what you need to do is always be yourself - don't change, just adapt your movement and a few things Barcelona dictate, but the thing I cared about was being a good teammate."
"This is something I achieved from the beginning and one can see all the things we've achieved so far," he added on the sidelines of the launch of playful animations of Barcelona players, including himself, as part of an official partnership with the appliances company Beko.
Barcelona legend and Southampton manager Ronald Koeman believes his former club will come out on top tomorrow morning, thanks in no small part to the presence of attacking ace Messi up front.
Koeman, who played for Barca between 1989 and 1995, believes Messi's genius marks him out above rivals such as Real's Cristiano Ronaldo.
"Barca have the best players at the moment," Koeman told Barca TV.
"They have the three players (Messi, Suarez and Neymar) up front and their performances are really impressive, but they still have (Sergio) Busquets, (Andres) Iniesta, (Gerard) Pique.
"Suarez - I know him since his time at Ajax. He showed what a great player he was, too good for the Dutch league, so he went to Liverpool.
"He had a difficult start at Barcelona, but he has shown since then that he is a fantastic player.
"Neymar has his qualities. He is still a young player, but he is going to explode one day. He is very quick, he is a scorer, he's got all the qualities you want in an attacking player.
"Messi is Messi. You can say a thousand things more about him, but Messi is the best in the world, by a large margin.
"He is capable of doing it in a split second, he is capable of doing amazing things by himself. Obviously, he needs other players as well, to help him and give him the ball.
"Barcelona are the favourites. Real, I don't really see them being as strong as they need to be to catch up with Barcelona.
"Both teams are in the Champions League but, in La Liga, there is too much difference." - Wire Services.
Race for the Golden Boot
The El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid tomorrow morning (Singapore time) pits the two most expensive strike forces in history against one another.
Here, AFP looks at the numbers behind the six men hoping to land Spain's Pichichi prize for La Liga's top marksman.
Cristiano Ronaldo (28 goals)
Ronaldo is still La Liga's top scorer as he has played every minute of the league season.
He hasn't scored in four games against opponents in La Liga's top four, but has looked close to his best in recent weeks with seven goals in his last five games.
Luis Suarez (26 goals)
Suarez is Barca's top scorer this season with 43 goals in 43 games in all competitions, 26 of them in La Liga.
The penalty spot is the one place from which the Uruguayan hasn't been deadly, as his efforts against Sporting and Rayo were both saved.
Lionel Messi (22 goals)
Despite missing two months of the season due to knee-ligament damage and playing a greater role as creator since Suarez's arrival last season, a surge of 24 goals since the turn of the year, 16 in La Liga, has Messi in the hunt for a fourth Pichichi.
Neymar (21 goals)
After a brief mid-season dip, the Brazilian has come back into scoring form with four in three games before the recent international break.
Karim Benzema (20 goals)
The Frenchman has the best minutes-per-goal ratio in La Liga, with one every 78 minutes he's on the pitch.
Staying there has been Benzema's trouble in a season disrupted by injury and off-field scandals, but he is already just one off his best-ever tally in a La Liga campaign.
Gareth Bale (15 goals)
Injuries have also ravaged Bale's season, but the Welshman's impressive strike rate of 15 in just 16 league starts also has him on course for his best scoring season since arriving in Spain three years ago.