THE football world stopped when El Clasico was on. For an entire generation, it was the sport’s biggest, most consequential fixture and home to an individual rivalry unlike anything ever witnessed before. Since then, though, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have moved on and the notion Barcelona and Real Madrid represent football’s pinnacle has disappeared.

However, Sunday’s meeting between the two rivals will offer a hint of brighter and better days to come. Barcelona and Real Madrid are both building for the future and appear to have turned a corner following a difficult start to the season which had many ringing the death knell for the two clubs at the elite level.

Barca enter El Clasico on the back of four straight La Liga victories. Xavi Hernandez has changed the entire structure of the team and the mood around the Camp Nou. The Catalans boast a core of youngsters (Ansu Fati, Pedri, Gavi, Nico Gonzalez) and have added proven quality through the addition of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Adama Traore and Ferran Torres.

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Xavi has revived Ousmane Dembele’s career and has put in place a midfield structure that allows Barcelona to control matches in the centre of the pitch. Initially, this control came at the cost of attacking threat as Xavi’s team drew a blank in two of their first four matches under their new manager, but the Catalans have now scored 20 goals in their last six league games.

It took some time for Barca to move on from the traumatic exit of Lionel Messi last summer, but the appointment of Xavi has given the club a sense of identity again. The Barcelona team that faces Real Madrid this weekend will be very different to the one that suffered a 2-1 home defeat to their fiercest rivals last October.

Real Madrid are also in a better place than they were six months ago. Carlo Ancelotti’s side have lost just two league games all season and sit 10 points clear at the top of the Spanish top flight as firm title favourites. Not only this, Los Blancos are fresh from eliminating Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

REAL MADRID v BARCELONA – MATCH ODDS

That comeback victory over PSG highlighted the inherent threat of Ancelotti’s Real Madrid. Even when they were second best, the La Liga leaders had Karim Benzema and Luka Modric to claw the match away from their opponents. Once Real Madrid scored once, it was almost certain they’d score more. Few teams know how to make better use of momentum.

Ancelotti might not have the young core Xavi has at Barcelona, but 21-year-old Vinicius Junior has reached a new level this season while 24-year-old Eder Militao has made himself a key figure in defence and 23-year-old Fede Valverde has continued his development in central midfield. Then there’s 19-year-old Eduardo Camavinga, widely considered one of the best young midfielders anywhere

 

LA LIGA – ALL COMPETITIONS

Of course, there is a sense Real Madrid are waiting for the arrival of Kylian Mbappe to truly move into a new era. The French forward has been the subject of a transfer market tug-of-war between PSG and the Spanish giants and finally looks set to move this summer. The Santiago Bernabeu has waited years to welcome Mbappe.

If Mbappe signs for Real Madrid, reports claim Barcelona could respond by signing Erling Haaland with Xavi recently asked about the possibility. In that scenario, El Clasico would once again become the platform for an individual rivalry. Haaland versus Mbappe could become the new Messi versus Ronaldo.

El Clasico may have lost much of the relevance it held just a few years ago, but the fixture still retains the political and cultural significance it has always had. Add to that two improving teams with a focus on the future and Barcelona and Real Madrid will surely do battle at the top of the sport again.