For the first time since the 2008/09 season Barcelona and Real Madrid face each other with both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo not signed to either one of these clubs
But that doesn’t mean the Clásico is void of star power. We’ve taken a look at four players who could play a pivotal role in the 183rd league meeting between Spain’s two most successful clubs.
To broach the subject of Memphis Depay and the importance that he’s taken on in this Barcelona side, first you have to accept that it is a conversation tinged with melancholy. A new signing who was registered only days before the season began, with no hesitation he became the central and defining figure of this Barça attack. Which is why it feels so unjust that Depay could never have taken on this challenge with the supernatural vision of Lionel Messi behind him.
Doubtless there is a crackling electricity within Memphis; a sharpness in his feet, constantly twisting, constantly trying to give his marker the slip. It manifests itself as excitement, his buzz extends into the crowd. The players who at any moment are capable of sneaking past a defender and rasping a drive home are rare, Memphis is increasingly an endangered species.
It’s true that he isn’t as much of a handful as peak Luis Suárez, as blessed with magic as Neymar nor as reliably brilliant as Lionel Messi. However he does share something with them: the possibility of brilliance.
To go with that, he has the mentality of a bona fide star. Unerring in his confidence, Memphis is comfortable swimming against the tide. This is not a quality to be scorned, especially at a club looking upwards at a tsunami of negativity. Memphis is very much keeping the self-worth of this team afloat.
Obviously, Karim Benzema has always been a very good player. For his entire Real Madrid career, he has been accurate and an important goalscoring factor. Creatively, perhaps even more so: twice he has contributed more assists than goals in La Liga. Recency bias skews judgement like few other things in the war of football opinions, but there is no doubt that ever since Cristiano Ronaldo left Real Madrid, Benzema has reached a new plane of performance.
Part of the reason he has always been such a creative force has been the presence of the Portuguese, which previously meant playing in different areas of the football field and tailoring his game to Ronaldo. This is not to downplay his contribution, more just to explain the difference.
Now, as the accepted sharp point of this Madrid side, the others play for him. Without Ronaldo and robbed by injury of an important partner in Eden Hazard, Benzema has shouldered the responsibility of the final pass and the finishing touch at the same time. It would be tempting to reduce this thrilling form to an Indian summer at the delicate age of 33 if his trajectory wasn’t so clearly skyward.
Although lethal as a tandem with Cristiano, every artist develops into something different when afforded the creative space and resources to explore their talent. This feels like the Frenchman’s finest album to date. With an improving supporting act around him, he is in the prime of his career. Real Madrid are his work space and without him, Los Blancos would struggle to reach the chorus.
If Memphis Depay has taken control of a dysfunctional Barcelona side, it is Pedri who creates the illusion that this team is much less broken than it actually is. Without the serene 18-year-old, there would barely be any reins to take, just a cluster of footballers struggling to move forwards.
He is the patch man, a fix to several problems that plague the Catalan team, as illustrated by his multiple goal-line clearances last season. Achieved with anticipation and an incredible hunger, it was he who came steaming from midfield past his teammates and the opposition to save the day. These were maybe the most heroic of many impressive sequences, but Pedri is constantly on the move and his numbers are of those of a ball-winning midfielder, ranking sixth for pressures in La Liga last season.
When he receives the ball, he releases it in better condition than when it arrived. A safety valve for Barcelona pressure, he is a reliable route of progression forward and an expert in timing. All of this with minimal fuss – again, a valuable quality at Camp Nou these days. Like many great players, their impact is best observed in their absence. Pedri solves equations with simplicity, whereas without him several peers must attempt the problem. The strain on his surrounding players is visibly heavier. Even Sergio Busquets and Frenkie de Jong look a touch gaunt in his convalescence.
This Barcelona wears the same colours as the vintage one, but the internal mechanics are those of a rickety old banger which could easily be sold for parts. It is often Pedri which holds it together. Should Barcelona attempt to return to their former splendour, it will be him taking care of the engine.
It is not as fun to write, talk or sing about a goalkeeper. Few of us understand them fully in a footballing sense and in the realm of psychology, they really are a mystery. How does one survive in a world where your greatest achievements are often relegated to a footnote and your biggest mistakes become the story of your season?
It might be worth asking Thibaut Courtois. When he first arrived at Real Madrid, there was an extended spell where the Belgian was less than impressive. Courtois’ confidence was questioned and when he was sick at half-time in a Champions League match against Club Brugge, some wondered if his substitution was entirely down to gastroenteritis.
All of these factors make it such a monumental feat that Courtois has not only returned to the top of his game in the pressurised Madrid climate, but become a difference-maker. It’s far less easy to wax lyrical about a player who appears fleetingly in comparison with a smooth midfielder who has 100 touches in which to thrill you. Still, without those moments where the incredibly long Courtois has grown even larger in stature, the truth is that Real Madrid don’t win their league title in 2020 nor do they come close the following year.
There’s a phrase in Spanish often used to describe guilty defenders: “he always appears in the photo [of the goal being conceded]”. If you go back and find the crucial victories where Real Madrid waver between glory and defeat, Thibaut Courtois always appears in the highlights package — for the right reasons.