The 231st installment of El Clasico takes place this Saturday at the Santiago Bernabeu. As La Liga’s premier fixture, this evergreen battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid always has plenty of narrative to go around; about 86 years worth, to be exact.
Naturally, this mammoth fixture tends to fixate its pulsing narratives around its mammoth participants. This year — and for the past eight years — that figure is Lionel Messi. But instead of the usual predictions of how many goals the Argentine maestro will score or how red he’ll make Pepe’s face turn, this time around, the questions are focused on whether or not Messi will even be on the pitch come kickoff.
The last few weeks have been saturated with news reports of Messi’s current injury status. Having been out of action since suffering a knee ligament tear against Las Palmas in September, the world’s best player has found himself in a race against time with his team’s most high-profile and perhaps title-affecting match approaching.
Official medical forecasts initially pegged Messi’s return for just before this coming weekend. However, Sport English reported on Nov. 2 that Messi would not be fit in time for the match. Then just over a week later, Mundo Deportivo revealed that Messi had indeed returned to training, giving some hope to Barca fans. Five days later, Sport again reported that the Argie was nearing full-fitness. Then just yesterday, teammate Luis Suarez claimed Messi was “looking sharp in training,” though still expressed doubts about whether or not he’d feature.
Which brings us to today, just two days away from Saturday’s duel, and Messi’s participation status is still as-of-yet unclear. It seems practical, at this point, to think that Messi will dress for El Clasico. All reports seem to indicate it’s become a priority for him and the club. Whether or not he’ll feature in the starting 11 or enter from the bench remains to be seen. But the real question should be, does it even matter?
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, Barcelona have swimmingly adjusted to playing without the diminutive Argentine. After dropping the initial fixture in Messi’s absence to Sevilla, Luis Enrique’s side put together four straight Primera victories against Rayo Vallecano, Eibar, Getafe and Villarreal. Meanwhile, both Neymar and Luis Suarez have proven their ultimate worth, combining for 14 Liga goals over the five games since Las Palmas.
Additionally, players like Sergio Busquets and Sergi Roberto have arguably (or inarguably in Roberto’s case) been in the form of their lives over the same period. There’s obviously very little grounds on which to make the argument that a Messi-less Barca is a better Barca; the last decade of Pulga miracles confirms as much. But maybe it does indicate that rushing the number 10 back isn’t necessarily in anyone’s best interest.
Regardless of Messi’s inclusion, the theme of Saturday’s Clasico will be “change.” For the first time in 15 years, this fixture will not feature Xavi Hernández or Iker Casillas on either teamsheet. It’s certainly a changing of the guard and feels like a perfect opportunity to crown some new kings. Maybe it’ll be Isco’s day. Or perhaps Munir’s.
Or maybe Messi will come off the bench in the 63rd minute and score another hat-trick. One of those seems more likely than the rest.