Nine months and one day after beating a Barcelona side that looked like it would be the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles, Real Madrid returns to Catalonia’s church of football on Saturday.
The El Clasico on April 2 – a 2-1 Real victory – ended an historic run of 39 matches unbeaten for Barcelona and set into motion a series of events that denied Barca the possibility of a double-treble. After that springtime shock result, Barcelona went on to lose three of its next four matches and crashed out of the Champions League in stunning style. Seemingly, Real Madrid lifted the cloak of invincibility off Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, Neymar and Luis Enrique’s Catalans.
And in truth, Barcelona has never been the same.
Entering Saturday’s global event, which is watched by roughly 2 million viewers in the United States alone, the two clubs have reversed roles since their last meeting. This time, Real Madrid enters El Clasico on a 31-match unbeaten run, while Barcelona is struggling. Los Blancos lead their eternal rivals by six points after starting the La Liga campaign unbeaten through the first 13 rounds. That undefeated streak jumps to 21 matches across all competitions for the 2016-17 campaign, as Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane continues to prove his first season in charge was no fluke. A win on Saturday would lead Real Madrid to a nine-point lead over Barcelona in La Liga.
[Related: Everything you need to know before the Clasico]
From the time Real Madrid last played Barcelona, Cristiano Ronaldo and company have only suffered one defeat. That loss came against Wolfsburg in Germany only four days after the April 2 El Clasico at the Camp Nou, and Madrid quickly avenged that result with a 3-0 victory over the German side a week later. So 33 matches later, Real Madrid has already spoken for its lone loss.
Already, the 2016-17 campaign has featured three defeats for the Blaugrana, including a stunning come-from-behind victory by Manchester City in the Champions League. One can count four losses if the Catalan Super Cup is included, though that game has no bearing on La Liga, the Copa del Rey or the Champions League.
In truth, Barcelona is stumbling into Saturday’s El Clasico with two draws in its last two league games. Away to Real Sociedad a week ahead of the rivalry match, Messi and company were lucky to even snatch a point and return home with a 1-1 draw.
While Barcelona may be wobbling, the Argentine alien continues to hit superhuman heights in his 29th year on the planet earth. Messi remains the rock that grounds Barcelona, and the little magician scored the equalizer against Real Sociedad. Since returning from a groin injury on Oct. 15, Messi has scored in seven of the eight matches he’s played and tallied 11 total goals over that stretch. While Barcelona as a whole may not be in form and remain a side struggling to find its midfield footing with club captain Andres Iniesta out injured, Messi enters Saturday’s Spanish derby as the most dangerous player at the Camp Nou.
Only one player even approaches Messi as a player in the modern game. Ronaldo is that man and is the runaway favorite to win his fourth Ballon d’Or at the end of the year. He is also the only player that has more goals than his Argentine nemesis in La Liga through the first 13 rounds of the current campaign. Ahead of Saturday, Messi has nine goals and Ronaldo has 10 in the race for the Pichichi Trophy.
With Gareth Bale out for an extended stretch due to a broken ankle that required surgery, Real Madrid will be even more dependent than usual on the 31-year-old Ronaldo, who enters El Clasico with five goals in his past three games, including a hat-trick in a 3-0 victory over city rival Atletico Madrid.
Ultimately, yes, Saturday is another round of Messi vs. Ronaldo. Cliché as it may be, these two remain the two greatest talents in the world and the biggest draws in the sport. By being in form and shouldering greater expectations than should be asked of any single player in the team sport, they continue to perform under pressure time and again.
Nine months and one day after their last meeting, the tables have turned for Messi’s Barcelona and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid. On April 2, Ronaldo fired home the match-winner to stun mighty Barcelona, snap the Calatan’s unbeaten streak and remove the cloak of invincibility.
On Dec. 3, is it Messi’s turn to return the favor?