Messi aims for record vs. Ronaldo in clasico
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Saturday’s game between Real Madrid and Barcelona will last 90 minutes like any other, but this clash between the Spanish giants promises to be a classic among clasicos.
Barcelona and Madrid almost always offer scintillating contests, and this one is set up to offer so much more.
Not only can Lionel Messi equal or surpass the Spanish league’s all-time leading scorer on the pitch of his archrivals, new teammate Luis Suarez could play his first minutes since being banned for biting an opponent at the World Cup.
Toss in Madrid forward Cristiano Ronaldo and Barcelona goalkeeper Claudio Bravo both aiming to extend their record starts to the Spanish league, and you have one of the most highly anticipated games of the season in any league.
Here are some things to know about the ninth round of the Spanish league:
MESSI AND RONALDO: Again taking center stage will be the two stars who have divvied up the world player of the year award for the past six years.
While Ronaldo leads Madrid with 20 goals through 13 games this season, Messi has improved his passing skills with each year, and threatens both to score and set up his teammates, particularly Neymar.
Messi and Ronaldo arrive in spectacular form, and with their own personal challenges beyond leading their teams to victory.
Messi needs to score once to equal Telmo Zarra’s league record of 251 goals that has stood untouched for almost 60 years.
“If he does it, I don’t know what the response of the public will be. I only hope he is able to because it would be a good signal that we would have more options to win,” Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta said.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, can extend the best scoring start to a season, having netted 15 through the first eight rounds.
As usual, the two played down their individual duel.
“I am not going to play against Messi, I am going to play against Barcelona,” Ronaldo said. “It is going to be a tough game.”
BETTER BARCELONA: The return of former player Luis Enrique as coach has reaped immediate benefits, and has Barcelona leading the league by three points over Sevilla with Madrid another point back.
The team is attacking more fluidly than at the end of last season under Gerardo Martino, and its defense is so improved that its run of eight clean sheets to start the league with newcomer Bravo in goal is a record.
Luis Enrique has moved Neymar from the left wing nearer to the area where he can work in close quarters with Messi, and the two have formed a powerful scoring duo with both finding the net for the past five matches after each scored in a 3-1 win over Ajax on Tuesday.
The biggest question of all is whether Luis Enrique will give Suarez his first minutes in an official game for Barcelona.
“We are assimilating well what our coach is asking us to do,” said Barcelona right back Dani Alves, who added that the clasico is the game “we live to play.”
“There is nothing like this game. This game is what marks the difference between a Barcelona player and a player who just aspires to play for Barcelona.”
REAL GOOD: Carlo Ancelotti’s Madrid has forgotten its early stumbles and is on a run of eight straight victories after a 3-0 win at Liverpool on Wednesday thanks to two goals by Karim Benzema and another from Ronaldo.
Madrid has outscored its opponents 35-5 during the winning streak.
Madrid mesmerized Anfield late in the first half with exquisite passing more reminiscent of the best days of Barcelona.
With Gareth Bale doubtful after missing the Liverpool match due to a muscle pull in his buttocks, Ancelotti could again give the nod to Francisco “Isco” Alarcon and deploy a trio of finesse midfielders along with Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, who may dare to challenge Barcelona for possession.
POLITICAL OVERTONES: Clasicos have long been seen as a symbolic staging of the rivalry between the team’s cities, but the match in the Spanish capital arrives with Catalonia’s secessionist movement in full force.
The Catalan government plans to hold a mock referendum on Nov. 9 on whether the region’s 7 1/2 million residents would like to become an independent state separate from the rest of Spain.
Chants of “Independence” are common at Camp Nou in recent years, while last year’s Copa del Rey final in Valencia saw the neutral Mestalla Stadium speckled with Catalan flags on the one side and Spanish flags on the other.
5 ON TOP: Overshadowed by the big game, the other 18 teams are in action with Sevilla, Valencia and Atletico Madrid all trying to stay at the top.
If Barcelona loses, Sevilla can pull level on points with a win over Villarreal on Sunday that would establish a best start to a season in club history.
Valencia enters the round in fourth and hosts Elche on Saturday, while fifth-place Atletico visits Getafe on Sunday.