El Clásico is almost here! Real Madrid and Barcelona take the field on Saturday for what is already a pivotal title-deciding game. The Blaugrana are up three points in the standings, and they could double that lead with a victory, and six points is a gigantic gap for teams of this quality and efficiency in the domestic league.
The big story surrounding this even bigger game is of course the return of Lionel Messi, who is widely expected to be available for selection this weekend after missing the last two months with a knee injury. The Argentinian practiced normally with his teammates on Thursday, and how he does on Friday will determine whether or not he'll play at the Bernabéu.
His inclusion in the starting lineup is undoubtedly the biggest question mark for Luis Enrique ahead of El Clásico. Here's what we think will happen in terms of which eleven play from the beginning:
Alves - Piqué - Mascherano - Alba
Rakitic - Busquets - Iniesta
Munir - Suárez - Neymar
The general feeling among everyone covering this game is that Messi will play, but it's highly probable he will be on the bench. Enrique has guaranteed he won't risk another injury by forcing Leo into more minutes than he's capable of. This is set up perfectly for Lucho to use Messi in the same way he did in the big win at Atlético Madrid a few months ago, when he saved the superstar for the final 30 minutes of the game, and then Leo came in, changed the match and scored the game-winning goal.
As we've seen, Neymar and Luis Suárez can certainly carry the load for a good portion of the match, plus Munir El-Haddadi will be more effective to get back on defense and take care of the dangerous attacking support of Marcelo on the left side. When the 'MSN' trio is eventually reunited for the decisive minutes, we can see some game-changing plays made by the world's best player with his current slim match fitness being smartly used at the optimal time. But as we all know, it's ultimately Messi's call, and if he's good to go for some 70 minutes, we could see him at the starting lineup.
Two other things to decide on for Lucho: 1. Gerard Piqué's center-back partner. Thomas Vermaelen and Jérémy Mathieu have been good for the last few weeks, but Javier Mascherano is the usual choice for this type of game. 2. Ivan Rakitic starting or not. The Croatian will be ready to play after successfully recovering from a calf injury. But with Sergi Roberto in such good form, it's interesting to see who gets the midfield role alongside Busquets and Andrés. My guess is Rakitic, because of the experience factor and the overall better quality of Ivan. My only fear is that Lucho is forced to burn a substitution if he chooses to start Rocketic, but hopefully the injury bug will be nice.
We also asked our community to pick their favorite eleven to start, and your choice was this:
Bravo | Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba | Busquets, Rakitic, Iniesta | Messi, Suárez, Neymar
You couldn't resist seeing Messi's name on the form again, could you?