When Real Madrid play Barcelona, the whole world stops and watches. Such is the arresting power of famed El Clasico.
Now, stakes have been raised manifold. And, the fate of the La Liga title race hangs in balance as Los Blancos host La Blaugrana on Sunday.
But, who are the star performers for the clubs this season? More importantly, who makes it to The Statesman’s combined XI of the arch-rivals?
The players (in a 4-3-3 formation) are:
Goalkeeper: Marc Andre ter-Stegen
Barcelona’s German keeper comfortably wins this individual battle against Real’s Costa Rican custodian. The reason being not just because of the number of clean sheets they have gathered (9 for ter-Stegen, 4 for Navas), also Stegen is pretty handy with his feet, makes fewer mistakes and is more commanding of his penalty area than Navas is.
On current form, it would be difficult to find a better left-back in the world than Marcelo. His displays on the flank have been excellent all season. Had Jordi Alba been starting game for La Blaugrana consistently, he might have had a stronger edge. But as things stand, Marcelo is the clear winner here.
Centre-Back: Sergio Ramos
Probably the easiest pick, Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos was a shoo-in for the first central defensive slot. He has an incredible seven goals to his name this season, all in the La Liga! It’s not just about goals, however, as the centre-back is a real leader and while he has a propensity towards yellow cards, remains among the finest central defenders in the world.
Summer-signing Samuel Umtiti has tailed off after an impressive start. And, with Javier Mascherano starting to show signs of aging, Ramos doesn't even have much competition for this spot.
Centre-Back: Gerard Pique
Pique remains a divisive figure in footballing debates, but currently it would be hard to argue against his inclusion. Real Madrid’s centre-backs, Pepe and Raphael Varane are both injured and while Nacho has acquitted himself well in their absence, he hasn't had enough of game time to seriously challenge Pique. From his own club as well, he doesn't have much completion as Umtiti isn't quite the finished product yet and while Mascherano isn't quite over-the-hill, he isn't the player he was a couple of seasons ago.
Right-Back: Dani Carvajal
Carvajal took his time, but has now firmly established his place as the first-choice right-back for Los Blancos, ahead of summer signing Danilo. His competitor, Sergio Roberto, is a decent right-back but had Aleix Vidal been fit, probably would not have been in the starting line up for the Catalans. Carvajal’s energy, speed and quality crosses make him a solid right-back and at 25, there is plenty of upside for the Leganes native.
Left Midfield: Toni Kroos
A model of efficiency on the pitch, Kroos never once looks rushed while playing. While he may not score many goals, a tally of 11 assists (league only) suggests his season has been quite fruitful. It’s not just about assists, however, as with Kroos in the side, Los Blancos are able to dictate the pace of the game without much fuss. Andres Iniesta just doesn't have it anymore, perhaps that is why he has started just nine league games in the 2016-17 season. Ivan Rakitic would have had a serious chance of dislodging the German had he not been so inconsistent for Barcelona, especially in the big games.
Centre-Midfield: Sergio Busquets
The biggest battle was not upfront but in the middle of the park. Casemiro vs Sergio Busquets. Contrasting styles as the Brazilian has a high-energy, extremely robust approach while the Spaniard prefers to be squeaky clean and utilises his high footballing IQ to intercept his opponents. Granted, Casemiro has been excellent all season, but Busquets deserves his place in the heart of this XI due to his supremely-consistent displays and whenever he doesn't play, Barca suffer greatly.
Right-Midfield: Luka Modric
Modric may not have the energy as he used to, but he makes the cut ahead of the likes of Iniesta and Rakitic. As mentioned above, the former is too old to play every game and the latter hasn't been as consistent as expected. Modric is still hard to beat one-on-one and his technical abilities remain undiminished.
Left-Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
Plenty of talk of Neymar surpassing Messi has been doing the rounds but if you look at the stats, he is far away from displacing the Argentine maestro. His tally of nine goals is dwarfed by Ronaldo's tally of 19, a staggering difference if one considers this to be the Portuguese sensation’s worst season at the Santiago Bernabeu. Yes, the Brazilian has more assists, but CR7 is just too consistent to not be picked. Ronaldo’s powers may well be on the wane, but the fact remains that he is still head and shoulders ahead of the likes of Neymar, at least for now.
Centre-Forward: Luis Suarez
Despite scoring 24 goals in the league, Suarez is still not Barcelona’s top scorer. A strange stat but considering he plays alongside the brilliant Lionel Messi, an understandable one. Suarez has been on fire in all competitions this season, banging in goal after goal. A striker that battles for each and every ball and is always making space for himself and his teammates, he is arguably the finest No. 9 in the world at the moment. Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema has been quite poor the whole season and in all honesty, would need to be in the form of his life if we were to even think of being picked over Suarez.
Right-Forward: Lionel Messi
Like Ronaldo before him, there is very little that hasn't been already said on this great talent. Twenty-nine league goals in a team which haven't been firing on all cylinders all season is no mean feat. Very rarely does he have an off game and while he can play a number of positions due to his immense versatility, he is perhaps at his devastating best when he cuts in from the right wing. Gareth Bale plays for Madrid in this position and while he is a fine player, he is too injury-prone to be considered seriously.
Final Score: Real Madrid 6 , Barcelona 5