This weekend, one of the most watched sporting events on the globe will be hyped up even further as Luis Suarez’s end of suspension from football coincides with the first El Clasico encounter of the season at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Barcelona have never arrived in Madrid in such imperious form at the beginning of a campaign, even if this new look Luis Enrique led team are still developing their understanding, and have not quite reached the near perfect levels of Guardiola’s reign, the signs are ominous for the rest of La Liga and their bitter rivals from the Capital.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid side may have scored eight more goals than Barca in the League but the men from Catalonia have conceded zero and are undefeated, whereas Los Blancos have already slipped up twice, losing to Atletico Madrid and Real Sociedad.
The main transition in the Barcelona starting XI this Summer was the introduction of Ivan Rakitic (the new No.4) as the long term successor to Xavi Hernandez, and the Croatian playmaker seems to have settled in well; Rakitic has weighed in with 2 goals from his first 7 games while also displaying that essential “La Masia” quality of being able to retain possession, with an impressive pass completion rate of 91%.
The 30 year old Frenchman, Jeremy Mathieu, looks like the solid left-sided centre-back that Barca have been crying out for. The ex-Valencia defender’s ability to do the basics well, has contributed significantly to Luis Enrique’s new, mean looking Catalan outfit. Mathieu’s average clearances per game and average interceptions per game (both 2.9) are the highest in the Barcelona squad by some margin, and when partnering Gerard Pique, it allows for some necessary squad rotation, as Javier Mascherano is shifted into midfield (his preferred position) with Sergio Busquets taking a well earned rest.
Enrique seems to be getting everything right at the moment, rotating admirably, and keeping his very talented and precocious squad happy. The blossoming understanding between Neymar and Lionel Messi was highlighted brilliantly by the Argentine’s superb goal against Eibar on Saturday in the 3-0 victory; a lovely give-and-go with the Brazilian saw the Magic left foot of Messi then drive a crisp finish into the bottom corner of the net for his 7th goal from the opening 8 games of the season, and at 250, he’s now just one away from Telmo Zarra’a all-time La Liga goal record.
Meanwhile in Madrid, Spain’s other global superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, has been outstripping the exploits of his diminutive rival once again as he strives to make it a second consecutive World Player of the Year award (Balon D’or) for 2014. Ronaldo outscored Messi last season for the first time since the 2010/11 La Liga campaign when he bagged 40 goals, and for the first time ever when you combine goals from all competitions, 51 to Messi’s 41.
This season, having played a game less than Messi (7 starting appearances in the Primera Division), the Portuguese Captain has netted an astonishing 15 goals, and his well on the way to matching Messi’s domestic tally of 50 goals from the 2011/12 campaign, and he may even surpass his overall goal record from that season of 73. It is in fact, the best start to a Spainish season ever by any player, taking him past the 71 year old record of Real Oviedo’s, Esteban Echevarria.
Ronaldo’s determination to not be hidden in the shadow of Messi’s historic achievements are highlighted in his shots per game ratio, which is 6.9 compared to the Barca man’s 4.6.
Another element of this, and an area in which Messi will always outshine Ronaldo, is the goal assists column, which reads 7 to 1 in Messi’s favour this season, with the Argentine also giving 3.5 key passes per game as opposed to the Madrid man’s slightly lower 2.7.
Ronaldo’s selfishness has become more efficient with maturity and the winger now no longer dribbles with the ball for the sake of it, whereas Messi’s incredible change of speed and direction lets him regularly slip by his marker with ease – 3.9 successful dribbles per game compared to Ronaldo’s 1.9. On Saturday evening at the Bernabeu all these statistics will count for little, although maybe the one that really matters is the goals scored by these players over the previous six League meetings, Messi leads the way by 6 goals to 4, another record that Ronaldo will be determined to break.
I would back the Portuguese forward to find the back of the net here, with a small stake on First Goalscorer at 5.0 Euro odds or 4/1, and a medium sized back-up bet at 1.91 Euro odds or 10/11 UK to be Anytime goalscorer.