El Clasico is the biggest domestic fixture in world football.
Hundreds of millions of fans from all over the globe tune in to watch the customary handbags, theatrics and fireworks.
Last season, both La Liga clashes featured red cards as Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-0 at the Bernabeu before a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp at the back end of the season.
This Sunday, the old rivals meet again.
And while we expect nothing less than edge-of-the-seat entertainment, is it fair to expect a significant decrease in standard to what we’re used to?
Real are without a win in their last five games.
Rarely, if ever, will they face Barcelona during a run of such poor form.
Defeats to Sevilla, CSKA Moscow, Alaves and Levante have cast doubt over Julen Lopetegui’s future.
Los Blancos have already lost as many games this season as the entirety of the 2016/17 campaign, when they last won the title.
Their biggest concern is a desperate lack of confidence in front of goal.
Prior to Marcelo’s consolation strike at the weekend, Real had failed to score in four consecutive games.
Injury has prevented Gareth Bale from playing as many minutes as he would have liked but it’s not like the club are short of resources.
After a hopeful start to life without Cristiano Ronaldo, the absence of the Portuguese superstar grows more conspicuous by the day.
Many fans have turned on Karim Benzema.
The pressure is as great on the long-serving Frenchman (without a goal in his last eight games) as it is on Lopetegui.
Okay, so that’s Real, but what about Barca?
The Catalan giants are currently top of the table after a 4-2 win over Sevilla on Saturday.
However, the victory was soured as Lionel Messi was substituted after landing awkwardly on his arm.
It has since come to light that the talismanic No10 fractured his radial bone.
Early estimations have ruled him out for at least three weeks, meaning he’ll miss El Clasico.
It sounds obvious to say Barcelona v Real Madrid won’t be as good without Messi or Ronaldo.
But the bigger issue is how reliant the two superpowers have become on their standalone star players.
For Real, it’s a more pressing problem, as Ronaldo has moved on to pastures new.
There aren’t many forwards who’ll guarantee you approximately 50 goals every season.
As for Barcelona, an over reliance on Messi may have stemmed from Neymar’s shock departure.
The signings of Ousmane Dembele and Malcom have yet to offset the Brazilian’s exit, while Philippe Coutinho has been tasked with filling the hole left by Andres Iniesta.
Last season, Messi finished as the league’s top scorer and top assist-provider.
Barcelona came so close to an invincible season — losing 5-4 to Levante in the last away fixture of the campaign, one of very few games Messi missed.
Building your team around one of the greatest player ever is not a bad idea, of course.
But there’s been a sense that Messi now shoulders too much responsibility for both club and country.
Luis Suarez, while still supremely effective on his day, has somewhat succumbed to the inevitable decline of ageing.
Even with a squad bursting with household names, everything goes through Messi.
Eresto Valverde hardly has any time to prepare his team for Inter Milan’s visit to the Nou Camp on Wednesday night.
After that, the squad must form a plan for El Clasico, taking Messi’s absence into account.
All these factors mean next weekend’s game could the worst of its kind for years in terms of overall quality.
Equally, it could be a thriller for the ages.
Messi or not, El Clasico is still as big as it gets.
- Neymar’s hopes of a Barcelona redemption are desperate and tragically futile
- 9 Premier League legends who somehow never won Player of the Month
- How many of Pep’s current Man City squad would make his iconic Barcelona 08/09 XI?