Messi's brace puts him within striking distance of Gerd Muller's single season record.
It’s one of the biggest games on the planet: El Clasico, the annual meeting between bitter rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid. There’s a lot on the line Saturday as Real Madrid look to open up their lead atop la Liga with a win — while Barcelona can close the gap to just a single point. Both clubs are coming off midweek losses in the Champions League, but that only ratchets up the pressure on what promises to be a cauldron. Here are six men you must keep an eye on Saturday afternoon.
Jose Mourinho, Manager, Real Madrid
The so-called “Special One” got his tactics all wrong against Bayern Tuesday and he can ill-afford another mistake. Mourinho only has one win in ten against the team Real must beat and the psychological strain is showing. Can his team beat Barcelona at their passing game? Can he keep all eleven players on the field? Or will he be reduced to arguing that Camp Nou is a place where Real finds it “impossible to win” yet again? Tune in to find out.
Karim Benzema, F, Real Madrid
The big striker is patchy but when he is on, he can be a handful. Against Bayern he showed flashes but not enough follow-through and Barcelona will surely have watched that tape. Iker Casillas is as good a keeper as Munich’s Manuel Neuer, and he will know that Benzema tends to get frustrated and disappears the longer a game goes on. But if he gets off the mark, look out — he can score beauties.
Cristiano Ronaldo, F, Real Madrid
The X-factor for Real Madrid. Ronaldo is devastating on set pieces, a canny passer and a deadly scorer. Indeed, he’s been rewriting record books this year. His problem is that he tends to fade away in big games, and can be reduced to tears by tight marking. Barcelona will try to wind him up early and put a body on him all game long. Bayern did the same thing to great effect.
Xavi Hernandez, M, Barcelona
The string-puller, the trio of Andres Iniesta, Messi and Xavi are what make Barcelona so deadly. Xavi rarely makes a bad pass, shows superb downfield vision and can hold the ball for what seems like ages. At his best, he is a powerful, surging runner, playing the angles with his partners and racing through the defense. Had a mediocre night (for him) in London, but when he’s on the ball, it’s almost impossible to get him off it.
Daniel Alves, D, Barcelona
The defender who fancies himself a winger saw his limitations exposed in London and he will need to regroup for a whole new test. He’ll be trying to contain either Ronaldo or Angel Di Maria while roaming up to provide service to the trio that pulls the strings. One thing to watch is Alves’ temper: Real will try to chip away at his ankles from the whistle in the hope of seeing him in card trouble.
Lionel Messi, F, Barcelona
The unquestioned best player in the world right now comes into the game bruised from an off-night in London. He may have picked up a groin strain from an awkward slide and how that affects his performance remains to be seen. He was well-contained by Chelsea, but even that pitch-perfect defensive effort saw five or six men dragged along by the little wizard. Worse yet for Real: Messi rarely has two off-nights in a row. Simply mesmerizing.