23 October 2014 13:54
As if the biggest game in club football needed it, Luis Suarez’s Barcelona debut adds another fascinating sub-plot to Saturday’s El Clasico.
The Uruguay forward – who moved from Liverpool to Barca in a reported €94million deal in the close-season – is set to make his Liga bow at the Santiago Bernabeu in the 229th edition of this famous rivalry with Real Madrid.
It is set to be Suarez’s first appearance since receiving a four-month ban for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup and the divisive figure will be desperate to repay the faith shown in him by the Catalan giants with a debut goal.
But while Suarez, who scored 31 times in 33 Premier League appearances for Liverpool last term, has the chance to become an instant hero at his new club, he will have to get used to sharing the limelight with other Camp Nou stars.
Chief among them is Lionel Messi, who could yet steal the headlines for himself if he can net the two goals he needs to become La Liga’s all-time leading scorer.
The diminutive striker reached 250 with his effort in the 3-0 win over Eibar last weekend, with the record of Telmo Zarra now in his sights.
As stages go on which to surpass a landmark tally that has lasted for six decades, this seems perhaps the most fitting for someone of Messi’s ability, with the Argentina forward having scored more Clasico goals than anyone else.
Victory would hand Barca a significant early advantage in the Spanish top flight, with Luis Enrique’s men four points clear of third-placed Real and still unbeaten in the league.
Carlo Ancelotti’s players will not take kindly to being considered part of the supporting cast, though, and the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and James Rodriguez all have it within them to take on a leading role.
El Clasico is a fixture soaked in history and a host of stellar names have contributed to its rich tapestry, with Messi and Ronaldo so often the stars in the past.
But, as shown in April’s Copa del Rey final, there is a new breed ready to take the limelight.
Gareth Bale scored a stunning goal in extra time on that occasion – the Welshman ran half the length of the pitch before poking past goalkeeper Jose Pinto to seal Real Madrid’s 2-1 win – but he will miss this clash with a gluteal injury.
That result offered a small measure of revenge after Barca’s league double in El Clasico last year, as they followed a 2-1 home success with a stunning 4-3 triumph in Madrid.
Three penalties and a red card were dished out in that meeting, with two second-half spot-kicks from Messi – the last of which was scored six minutes from time – proving crucial.
Real had the last laugh, though, as they completed the season as champions of Europe for the 10th time, while Barca endured a campaign without a major trophy for the first time since 2007-08.
Luis Enrique has been charged with leading the club he represented as a player back to glory, and he will recognise the vital importance of getting one over on Barca’s fierce rivals.
The new coach’s ideas are making a difference, according to defender Dani Alves, who revealed that his team-mates have no shortage of motivation for the clash.
“We live for games like this,” Alves told Barca TV.
“We are assimilating the boss’ ideas very well. We have a very clear idea about what we want. And we seem to be getting better and better.”
Both sides enter the clash on the back of Champions League successes, with Barca gaining a day’s extra rest after a 3-1 home win over Ajax on Tuesday, in which both Messi and Neymar scored.
Real, meanwhile, were comfortable 3-0 winners over Liverpool and had the luxury of taking their foot off the gas in the second half having scored all their goals before half-time.