|Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo shake hands prior to their La Liga match.|
Seven months have elapsed since these teams last squared off, and that has only added to the intrigue ahead of Saturday's showdown at Barca's Camp Nou Stadium. Since then, much has happened – some of it surprising, some entirely predictable.
Both teams used the summer break to stock up on fresh talent, albeit at an extraordinary level of cost. Gareth Bale became the most expensive player in the world when he signed with Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur for a reported $133 million, while Barca may feel it got better value with Brazilian wunderkind Neymar, who was a comparative bargain at a mere $80 million.
Each club has a new head coach, too. Gerardo Martino took over the reins at Barca and Carlo Ancelotti assumed the same role in Madrid, each man facing the inevitable weight of expectation that comes with life at one of Spanish soccer's giants. And whatever else is accomplished, both men know that, to a large extent, their legacy will be determined by their performances in these rivalry matchups.
While all eyes are always on any El Clasico, a straight shootout for the Spanish Primera Divisiónchampionship this is not. That is thanks to the welcome arrival of a third legitimate contender in Atletico Madrid, which has played entertaining soccer and also been mightily effective in the opening months of the campaign as the title race's underdog.
But as things change, some just stay the same. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are still the standout players in world soccer, although Zlatan Ibrahimovic of French side Paris St. Germain and the Sweden national team is quickly trying to elevate himself into that glittering realm. Both Messi and Ronaldo continue to rack up statistics for fun, even with Messi somewhat hampered by some niggling injuries over the past few months.
Ronaldo is in an especially rich vein of form with six goals in his last four games for Real, perhaps inspired by the attention surrounding the arrival of Bale and the potential that he could be usurped as the King of the Bernabeu. As recent games have shown, Ronaldo's crown is firmly in place, probably for a good while to come.
The upcoming World Cup is a big carrot for Ronaldo and Messi. For all their club brilliance, international glory has eluded both. Ronaldo is not even guaranteed a place in the summer showcase with Portugal facing Ibrahimovic and Sweden in a do-or-die playoff next month.
For now, though, there are more immediate matters to take care of. With the La Liga title race perilously close, first-place Barca is one point clear of Atletico and three ahead of Real. In Saturday's El Clasico, there is everything to play for, not just the typical bragging rights that go hand in hand with one of the sport's greatest battles for supremacy.