Real Madrid host FC Barcelona on Saturday in the season’s first El Clasico, and with Ronaldo out of form and Messi struggling for fitness, the match could usher in a new era of this historic rivalry between Spain’s biggest clubs

 

Even as Saturday’s game heralds a new El Clasico era — it being the first Clasico this century without the presence of the legendary Xavi HernA?ndez and Iker Casillas — it could also mark the beginning of the end of the Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi duopoly.

Xavi and Casillas first played each other in February 2000, when Real Madrid triumphed 3-0 at the Santiago Bernab u. They faced each other 22 more times in meetings spanning over a decade, and for the first time in 15 years, neither will participate in the El Clasico.

In the midst of some of the darkest days in the relationship between the two clubs, the willingness of the former Real Madrid and Barcelona captains to rise above the acrimony and mud-slinging was reflective of their character — two champions who were worthy of every honour they received. It was also this very attitude that played such a big role in uniting the Spanish national team, with La Furia Roja writing themselves into the history books with back-to-back EURO wins, the FIFA World Cup sandwiched in between.

Their absence in the biggest league match in the world, then, will be keenly felt. But even before their departures — since about 2009, in fact — two players have dominated the El Clasico narrative.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have defined an era of football, pushing each other to greater heights, and their meetings on the pitch over the past half a dozen years have only served to consolidate the view that football fans in Spain (and indeed, the world) have borne witness to two of the greatest footballers this generation has seen.

For a number of reasons, however, Saturday’s meeting between the two feels like it could finally mark the end of a duopoly that has come to define this fixture in recent times.

Cristiano Ronaldo has never been closer to a Real Madrid exit

The Portuguese might well finish his career with the Liga giants, but Cristiano Ronaldo has arguably never been closer to leaving Los Blancos. New manager Rafael Ben tez already seems to have fallen foul of the former Manchester United superstar, and few have missed the very public (yet subtle) exchange of messages between Ronaldo and president Florentino P rez in recent times.

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P rez often pulls the strings from behind the scenes, but perhaps against his better judgement, confronted Ronaldo at the Bernab u before the Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain. The 30-year-old tried to explain away his comments, but convinced nobody. He then went on to pointedly whisper in the ear of PSG manager Laurent Blanc after the game, before leaving the stadium with a wink to the president of the Ligue 1 side in full view of several flashing cameras.

Sevilla FC vs Real Madrid

P rez’s Realpolitik has permeated through the club, giving the impression that everybody associated with Real Madrid is playing their own game, with every move calculated and carried out for political one-upmanship. This sort of environment can take its toll on players, and it appears to have done so with Ronaldo and several of his confrA?res.

Ronaldo is the most saleable asset however, and there have been rumours that the club could consider a sale this summer, building the team around the likes of Gareth Bale and James Rodr guez — two excellent footballers who have what it takes to carry the club forward.

Even if Ronaldo does stay on beyond this season, one very special footballer is threatening to overtake the Portuguese.

Neymar an existential threat to the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly

The Brazilian superstar has objectively been better than Cristiano Ronaldo this season, and many are tipping him to finish ahead of the Portuguese on the FIFA Ballon d’Or podium in January. Even if he fails to do so, it is clear that Neymar is reaching both the performance and consistency levels that could get him in the conversation when talking about the world’s best players.

The 23-year-old has been exceptional this season in Messi’s absence, putting in consistent performances, and with the assistance of striker Luis SuA?rez, carrying FC Barcelona to the top of the table. That the Catalans go into the Clasico three points ahead of their rivals is largely thanks to the brilliance of Neymar, who seemed to effortlessly take on his Argentine teammate’s mantle in his absence.

Most saliently, however, Neymar is one of the few players in world football who can match the absurd statistics that Messi and Ronaldo post each season in terms of goals and assists. So far this season, the Brazilian has four more assists and the same number of goals as Ronaldo in domestic and European club competitions, and the consistency of his performances suggest that he could well keep up that scoring rate throughout the course of the campaign.

FC Barcelona vs PSG

Saturday’s El Clasico is the perfect opportunity for Neymar to make a statement on enemy territory, and given his record in the biggest games Barcelona have played in 2015, it would take a brave man to bet against him. Particularly if Messi starts from the bench, Neymar will once again be the creative fulcrum of the Blaugrana, and will have to shoulder the attacking responsibility for his side.

The Clasico has always been about the numerous little sub-plots and stories that make up the global spectacle watched by hundreds of millions around the globe, and although a lot of the focus ahead of the game will be about Messi’s fitness, Neymar’s performance will be worth following closely.

Real Madrid themselves have incredible talent in their ranks, and Bale and James Rodr guez have the perfect stage to prove that they are worth building a team around. For the first time after a long time, Saturday’s match seems to be about a lot more than just Messi and Ronaldo.

Although it marks the beginning of the post-Xavi and Casillas era, it could well mark the beginning of the end of the Ronaldo-Messi era.

The football world has vicariously lived through arguably the greatest ever head-to-head rivalry in the history of European football, but time — that most unforgiving of an athlete’s enemies — might finally take its toll on the legendary duo.

Meanwhile, the likes of Neymar, Bale and James lie in wait.