El Clasico: Comparing Messi-Suarez-Neymar vs Benzema-Bale-Cristiano
To be perfectly candid, it does not get any bigger than El Clásico. The meetings between Barcelona and Real Madrid invariably attract hundreds of millions of viewers the world over and Sunday’s installment is not expected be any different as the Blaugrana and Los Blancos renew hostilities at Camp Nou. There is an array of talent on offer in Sunday's Clásico, but much of the focus will be on the battle between the two strike forces.
Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar - dubbed MSN - will face off against Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo - BBC - to determine which La Liga giant comes out on top in the encounter. A win for either side will go a long way to establishing who is La Liga’s best this season. Real Madrid secured a 3-1 win when the teams met at the Bernabeu earlier in the campaign, when both Ronaldo and Benzema netted for the European champions, who were without the injured Bale.
Time for Gareth Bale to prove his critics wrong
The most expensive player in football has come under staunch criticism in recent months due to a lack of goals before his brace in Madrid’s 2-0 win over Levante. Bale’s 18th minute strike ended an 828-minute goal drought in La Liga, with the relief on his face as he charged for the corner flag to celebrate clear for all to see.
His second of the evening, inadvertently turning Ronaldo’s shot into the bottom corner, will have done little to convince he is back to his goalscoring best, but goals do breed confidence, no matter how they come. If Bale is to further endear himself to the Madrid faithful, he must improve on his previous Liga displays against Barcelona. 3 shots over 150 minutes of action and an average WhoScored rating of 6.79 in 2 league appearances against Barcelona last season needs to be bettered at Camp Nou in order to silence the doubters.
To find a way past a Barcelona side that has conceded the fewest goals (16) in La Liga this season, the 25-year-old must turn out a performance like that of last season's Copa del Rey final when he scored a wonderful winner. This season, Bale averages 3.6 shots per league match, a figure that only Ronaldo (6.2) and Lionel Messi (4.8) can better, but he needs to produce more goals. Bale has scored just 2 goals against the current top 6 this season, both of which were against Sevilla. Sunday would be the opportune time improve what is undeniably a pretty poor record.
Cristiano Ronaldo struggling for form
While Bale will strive to make the difference at Camp Nou for his side, however, Ronaldo is likely to command the spotlight for the visitors. The Portuguese ended Barcelona’s run of 754 minutes without conceding a league goal in the reverse fixture back in October, ensuring he has netted in back-to-back Liga Clásicos for just the second time since moving to Spain. Understandably, he will be keen to make it 3 goals in his last 3 but, like Bale, is struggling for form.
Since being named the 2014 Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldo has looked a shadow of his former self. His WhoScored rating this year (7.45), as respectable as that is, has dropped significantly from his rating (9.13) in La Liga this season before the turn of the year. That has seen the biggest negative change (-1.68) in rating by any player in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
He has scored just 5 league goals this calendar year after netting 25 in the first part of the season. Ronaldo has cast a dispirited figure on the pitch this year, epitomised in his reaction to Bale’s opener against Levante at the weekend when Ronaldo’s bicycle kick was headed off the line by Iván Ramis, culminating in Bale finding the back of the net. Ronaldo’s gesture was borne out of frustration more than anything.
Like Bale, the Portugal international is desperate to get back among the goals, having netted just twice in his last 7 league appearances. Such a lack of goals is certainly cause for concern ahead of El Clásico. Similar can be said of Benzema who, like Ronaldo, has only 2 goals to his name from his last 7 league appearances. The front three appear to be lacking cohesion at present and it’s crucial the destructive triumvirate rediscover their rhythm in time for Sunday.
Benzema, though, has a habit of stepping his game up for the meeting with Barcelona. Against no other team has he scored more league goals than against the Blaugrana (6) and he was WhoScored’s man of the match in the last meeting between the two teams. He too must return to his attacking best at Camp Nou if Real Madrid's BBC are to make any impact.
Messi currently in superb form this season
In contrast, Suarez, Messi and Neymar have been in scintillating form for Barcelona since the turn of the year, netting 29 of Barcelona’s last 37 league goals between them. Messi in particular has been exceptional this calendar year, with his WhoScored rating (9.18) the best of all players in Europe’s top 5 leagues, winning the WhoScored man of the match award in 14 of his last 16 competitive appearances. A brace against Eibar last weekend took his goal tally to 32, more than any other player in Europe’s top 5 leagues this season. With 14 goals to his name in 17 league Clásico outings, one would not bet against the 27-year-old adding to this on Sunday.
Despite not netting in Wednesday's Champions League meeting with Manchester City, many believe Messi comes into this fixture at the peak of his game. Yet another WhoScored rating of 10 signifies what was a performance of the highest quality and it took a blistering Joe Hart display to prevent 'The Flea' from scoring. Messi ran rings around his opponents, leading many to believe he is still the best footballer in the world.
Given he is expected to line up on the right, Ronaldo will need to work harder off the ball in order to limit Messi’s influence. The Portuguese, though, has developed a statistically calculated WhoScored weakness of ‘defensive contribution’, which could hinder Madrid. Ancelotti must demand more of Ronaldo when Madrid are not in possession or else Marcelo, who is likely to start at left-back, runs the risk over being exposed to Messi and an overlapping Dani Alves.
Redeploying Messi to the right has rejuvenated the attacker, with the Argentina international back to his blistering best. Enrique’s decision to swap Messi and Suarez in attack has also aided the Uruguayan, who now looks every bit the €80m player they purchased. As Spanish expert Dermot Corrigan noted on WhoScored earlier this week, Suarez certainly looks more settled as the focal point in the Barcelona attack.
Luis Suarez thrives as the frontman
6 of Suarez’s 7 league goals have come when he has started as the central frontman, with his WhoScored rating in the middle (7.57) an improvement than on the right (7.17). His movement in the final third also benefits Messi, with Suarez creating space for his teammate to exploit.
An example of this was for Ivan Rakitic’s goal against City in midweek. Suarez darted to the right and was followed by Martín Demichelis, which opened up space in the middle of the park. With Demichelis out of position, the City defence was forced to move across to counter the threat on the left. This allowed Rakitic, who was not tracked by Yaya Touré, the time needed to control Messi’s pass before lofting the ball over Joe Hart.
Finally, Neymar has really come into his own under Enrique. He is behind only Messi (32) and Ronaldo (30) in terms of goals scored (17) this season, and considering he bagged just 9 goals in his debut campaign in La Liga, Enrique deserves credit for harnessing the 23-year-old’s striking ability.
Neymar netted the opener in the Clásico at the Bernabeu earlier this season and was Barcelona’s highest rated player (7.67) despite a 3-1 defeat. His goal came as he cut inside from the left and this is what Madrid need to be weary of on Sunday. Like with Messi, Suarez’s runs across the final third open up space to be exploited, which will help Neymar in his pursuit of his 3rd goal in his fourth league Clásico.
Coming into Sunday’s fixture, Barcelona’s strike force are undeniably in the better form. However, given that Messi, Neymar and Suarez each played the full 90 minutes on Wednesday, fatigue could limit their impact, while Madrid have had a week to prepare for what is a hugely important Clásico. Nevertheless, with their current performances winning them numerous admirers, Barcelona’s attacking trio are tipped to outshine their adversaries on Sunday.