The eyes of the football world will be fixed on the Santiago Bernabéu this weekend as the latest instalment of El Clásico takes place in the Spanish capital.
The match is one of the most universally important and popular fixtures in the football calendar, and the implications of defeat are as significant as victory. It is a fixture that brings with it a different level of expectation.
While the respective hardcore fans of Real Madrid and Barcelona demand perfection from their team on this night more than any other, every neutral observer embraces the potential that this one match can take the sport to a different level.
A chapter in football history
Some of the most defining and historic moments in the Spanish game have occurred when these two giants meet. It is a testament to its world-wide appeal that the players understand the importance of the match and the cultural and political significance that it carries. It is the catalyst to chaos as much as it is to sporting idealism, as moments of madness and magic blend seamlessly inside each of these two footballing coliseums.
The current political tension in Catalonia has emphasised what has previously been an undercurrent in recent years, with Barcelona becoming a vehicle for uniting the fight for independence.
As the capital city, Madrid is a statement of Spanish rule, and the dynamic between the two teams has become an integral part of the increasing conflict that currently exists. While Barcelona are ‘Més que un club’, this fixture is more than just a match.
But for all the memorable battles that have taken place on the field, there have been forgettable occasions too. The 0-0 draw between the two teams at the Camp Nou in December will be remembered as the match that sent Ernesto Valverde's tenure into decline, and his time in charge of Barcelona effectively came to an end with his approach to this latest chapter in the story of these two clubs.
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos remains the traditional pantomime villain in this fixture, and his mastery of the dark arts has been the catalyst to a series of incidents that have defined this world-wide event.
Embracing the hatred that rains down on him on his visits to Catalonia, Ramos is a figure who represents Spain as much as Madrid, and his status adds to the independence battle in his role as the leader of the opposition.
The chess player
Quique Setién currently occupies the dugout at Barcelona. He has the responsibility of restoring a style of football familiar to the Camp Nou, and reversing the conservative approach of his predecessor that eventually cost him his job.
A keen chess player, the mentality associated with his passion away from the game will inevitably influence his tactical methodology, and his philosophy will need to match the expectations that come with the role.
The ever-evolving nature of football regularly retires heroes of previous Clásico encounters. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta no longer control the Barcelona midfield, while Cristiano Ronaldo now leads the front-line for Juventus rather than Real Madrid. But the passage of time creates new heroes, and there are dynamic young players at each club that have the potential to announce their arrival this weekend.
In Vinícius Júnior, Real Madrid boast in their ranks a talented attacking presence with the youthful exuberance necessary to shine under pressure. His technical ability may be considered a luxury, but it is an element that can make the difference when fine margins separate the two sides.
Likewise, Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig play without fear in the colours of the Blaugrana, and the confidence from the positive contribution they have made so far has only accelerated their development.
But like Ramos, the old guard are still in position to make a difference this weekend. Lionel Messi, Karim Benzema, Gareth Bale and Gerard Piqué are all capable of deciding matters on their own at the Santiago Bernabéu, and few would bet against a familiar name grabbing the most sought-after headlines in La Liga. Each Clásico is an opportunity for those involved to engrave their name in club folklore.
There are few other fixtures in the modern game that can inspire like El Clásico. There is an aura associated with the name of each club that generates memories and historical images that define past generations.
Passion is a pre-requisite when it comes to competing in this fixture, and failure to play with the same dedication as the Culés and Madridistas respectively is unforgivable.
Barcelona head into this weekend with a narrow two-point advantage over their rivals, and toppling them at the La Liga summit offers an extra incentive to Zinedine Zidane’s side. Recent form is an irrelevant factor when considering where El Clásico will be won and lost, and it is mental strength that will ultimately decide which team has the advantage in the condensed intensity of the playing field.
Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz will also be a key figure in deciding the destiny of these three valuable points in the title race, and inheriting the whistle for this occasion is a privilege not bestowed on the inexperienced or the weak. It takes a certain character to control matters when these two teams face each other, and this will be fifth time that Lahoz has taken charge of this fixture.
In recent years, the rivalry between Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho during their respective spells at Barcelona and Real Madrid intensified in the build-up to El Clásico. The resulting controversy ranging from Guardiola's memorable press conference rant over Mourinho's power in that environment, to the Portuguese's famous touchline altercation with the late Tito Vilanova in 2011.
But it is the players who create memorable moments for the right reasons when it comes to El Clásico, and the euphoric goal celebrations mean so much more when they come at the expense of their fiercest rivals.
Various elements of the modern game have lost touch with the raw emotion that formed our early attraction to the sport, and it is on nights like this that the magic returns.
Where legends are made
Ronaldinho, Raúl, Cruyff, Puskás, Maradona, Figo, Guti, Ronaldo, Henry, Gamper, Zamorano, Guti, Kubala, Stoichkov, Beckham, Rivaldo, Butragueño, Romário, Eto'o, Laudrup, Kopa, Messi and Santiago Bernabéu himself are just a handful of legendary figures that have graced El Clásico. These are the players who have inspired generation after generation through their performances in this fixture.
While the emotion will be intensified between Catalonia and Madrid on Sunday, fans from every country in every continent of the world will be taking a vested interest in the events that unfold over the course of the 90 minutes.
But the commercial benefits of victory are irrelevant when compared with the passion generated by the desire to win. It is El Clásico that has the power to restore our faith in the beautiful game, and long may it continue.