In what may be the most keenly watched El Clasico in some time, Barcelona and Real Madrid will each have two superstars in their midst, and for many, the interest will be in seeing which one steals the show.
It's somewhat understandable that both Cristiano Ronaldo and fit-again Lionel Messi will be presumed to continue to be the most dangerous player to their opponent come Saturday night. But Neymar, and British representative to proceedings Gareth Bale, may well see fit to decide now is the time to really announce themselves as one of the top players in the world, and to do that means getting up to, and surpassing the Messi/Ronaldo level.
Looking at the four players there are several interesting dynamics to uncover and throw into the melting pot that will become Camp Nou over the next couple of days.
Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo is, for the first time coming into this fixture, the form player in Spain, as well as the country's top scorer. Much of this has to do with the brief absence of his greatest rival, but fifteen goals in twelve games is not to be sniffed at, and is a goals to games ratio better than his very best season in the white of Real Madrid.
Gareth Bale has enjoyed a fractured and less successful start to the season, and though many would argue somewhat unfairly, is already having his ability and transfer fee questioned. The niggling injuries, lack of pre-season, coupled with the inevitable transfer fee grumblings, have stopped Bale from playing regularly, playing ninety minutes, and making his mark for Real.
Los Merengues fans are not used to a player coming in for that much money and not being instantly indestructible, and instantly efficient - it's what they saw with Ronaldo of course. Ancelotti started him as soon as he could, and Bale promptly replied with a debut goal, but since then, he has struggled to get fit enough to play, let alone influence matches. But this is not Bale's fault, and his nice guy, second-fiddle-to-Ronaldo attitude may have to toughen up if he is to escape being such an easy target for the fans and media. Saturday's match, and the vulnerability to lightning quick, direct running that Barcelona have, may be his chance to make a statement.
In contrast to the Welshman, and perhaps just as Real Madrid hoped for, Neymar has been relegated to signing, and column inch-grabber, number two after Bale's world record deal. However, just as Barca and Gerardo Martino seem to have exploited, this has meant less pressure on their precociously talented young Brazilian. After being eased into the side to begin with, Neymar had the chance to take the main attacking role in the side after Messi sat out a number of games with a thigh injury. As of now, Neymar has played in thirteen games for Barcelona since the start of the season, scoring three goals and creating six. Importantly, he has had a chance to develop his match fitness, and to acclimatise to his new team's style of play. This is of stark difference to the most expensive football player of all time.
And then there is Lionel Messi, modern footballs greatest player. He's missed three weeks it's true, but he has still scored twelve goals in eleven games. He only came back from injury on Tuesday of course, but he still grabbed the equaliser away at AC Milan. Given that the match is in Barcelona, if all these players start, and if Messi is at even 85% of his ability, he is the man most likely to be the match winner.
Having said that, if Bale starts the match (like Real will likely push to happen), he will have the most to prove and the biggest chance to impress, as well as, unfortunately for him, the biggest stage on which to flatter to deceive. Most British football fans will be hoping it is not the latter.
images: © prettyfriendship