El Clasico set to Pique interest more than ever
The news that Lionel Messi would be missing El Clasico was big. For some Barcelona's wobbly defence, it was likely terrifying, which is just one reason why Monday's (AEDT) Clasico is more fascinating and unpredictable than it has been for years.Barca has failed to keep a clean sheet since August, and its gratefulness for Messi's ability to both score and create goals further up the field was never more stark than when news broke that he would be missing for the next three weeks.
"When (Messi) is with us he gives us a sense of security," Barcelona defender Gerard Pique said.
"He is the best in the world. You notice when he is not there," he said, before going on to mumble some rehearsed lines about how the team could cope just fine without him.
Secret happiness in Barca ranks
There are undoubtedly some members of the Barcelona squad whom, like Real Madrid’s faithful, could even be secretly pleased that Messi is on the sidelines.
For a small man, Messi casts a big shadow, and opportunities to shine outside of it are rare. No, one huge one presents itself to Philippe Coutinho, Luis Suarez, Ousmane Dembele and Malcom. You could imagine them looking the mirror last Sunday night, surreptitiously pumping a fist like that baby in that meme, and whispering: "Yes! This is my chance."
For Coutinho in particular, this is an enormous chance to shine in the No.10 role. His performances in that space at Liverpool were, after all, what caught Barca's eye in the first place, and at 26, he is the natural replacement for Messi whenever the Argentinian decides to hang up his size fives.
Suarez, too, will be looking to take a big bite out of the fixture. He has scored just two goals from open play since early May. While he'll be looking to reset that particular stat, Dembele and Malcom will both be looking to make marks bigger than the holes they left in the club’s transfer budget.
Crystal ball: The future is here
For Barcelona as a whole, this El Clasico represents an unexpectedly early chance to taste life without Messi. For some, that might come as a relief — akin to the day you moved out of your parents' place for the first time. That sense of freedom could make or break a few performances on the field, and off it, coach Ernesto Valverde — while undoubtedly scratching his head about what system to play and who to pick without the first name on his team sheet available — should relish the opportunity just as much.
But just as life without Messi represents a big chance for Valverde to prove his worth as a coach, Madrid’s under-fire Julen Lopetegui can also look at the trip to Camp Nou in positive terms, provided he's still got a job come Monday.
Numbers never lie
Barca has been a relatively unstoppable force in LaLiga so far this season, and the pundits have been ever glowing in their praise. Sure, it’s lost just one of its nine games thus far — but that was a giant upset against Leganes just a few weeks ago that highlighted starkly the problems it has at the back, problems it has clearly yet to fix.
For Madrid, life has been bumpier still since the departure of Zinedine Zidane and the team’s own former talisman, Cristiano Ronaldo. While he’s been happily banging in the goals for his new mates at Juventus, Madrid's new-look attacking force has spent much of its time in front of goal with head in hands.
Lopetegui has never known life with Ronaldo at his disposal, and while that has proved difficult so far during a brief two-month grip on the reins, a win against Barcelona would be just the morale boost he’s looking for to ignite the fire his squad is clearly lacking.
The facts are kind to Lopetegui, despite what the so-called experts might have you believe. Los Blancos have won only one game fewer than Barca, and the four-point gap between the sides is far from insurmountable.
The “goals for” column is of some concern — 14 to Barcelona’s 23 — but defensively, Madrid is narrowly superior, and Barcelona’s slim pickings in that department — injuries to both Samuel Umtiti and Thomas Vermaelen mean more money will likely be spent come January — represent a prison door that hasn’t been locked and the key is lost. Neither Pique nor Clement Lenglet have been able to find it, and look more and more unable to as every game goes by.
The question for Madrid is whether or not Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale can break the shackles. One thing they do have is the true ace in the pack: Luka Modric.
The wily Croatian is everything Messi is to Barca and more, largely without the hype. If he turns in the type of mesmerising performance we all know he’s capable of, it’ll be Valverde searching for the headache tablets at full-time, not Lopetegui.
Keeping it Real
Thibaut Courtois has been looking for a fixture in which to make his mark, and he couldn't have dreamed of a better one than this. He won't care about the critics of his ball skills, even if Marc Andre ter Stegen shows off a few of his raking, pinpoint passes from the box. For the big Belgian, feet are for stopping goals, not assisting them, but he has one small problem — his record against Barca is the worst of any opponent he has face, with 20 goals conceded.
As for ter Stegen, he is in excellent form. Without him against Sevilla last Sunday, Barcelona might have lost that match. It was Messi that had inspired the team up to the point of his injury, and that's something Madrid will have taken note of. With enough bodies and pressure in attacking positions, there will only be so many times the German can save his fragile defence’s bacon.
It’s a Masterchef finale
Speaking of food, Monday’s match-up might be missing two key ingredients, but the possibilities of something incredibly tasty remain. Two teams, a ton of passion, frothing fans and sizzling atmosphere, all seasoned with a giant spoonful of uncertainty, make this El Clasico a dish you've never seen on any menu, and one you definitely don't want to miss.