Barcelona and Real Madrid will go head-to-head in the 247th edition of El Clasico on Sunday, still arguably the most famous club fixture in world football.
The Catalan giants will go into the fixture without Lionel Messi in their first-team squad for the first time in 17 years, with the Argentine’s Camp Nou exit this summer coming three years after Cristiano Ronaldo had departed the Spanish capital.
This is a fixture which has fewer established stars than recent years, with the exit of Barca captain Messi coming in the same year as skipper Sergio Ramos left Madrid with Raphael Varane and Antoine Griezmann among other high-profile exits from each club.
Both clubs have instead turned to youth and as the old proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention, as each side has a crop of extremely talented youngsters earning increasing prominence in their first-team squads.
Barca’s well documented financial problems have seen a catalogue of established, high-earning players leave the Camp Nou and make way for a new generation of stars.
Real Madrid’s financial position has had a much greater degree of planning, their president Florentino Perez has overseen an approach to transfer that has placed greater focus on youth and potential than established stardom.
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There is no shortage of experience in either side; Barca veterans Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets remain virtual ever-presents while Madrid’s midfield trio of Luka Modric, Toni Kroos and Casemiro has a combined aged of 96 with striker Karim Benzema, 33, arguably the world’s most in-form player.
Yet this feels like the start of a new era in the fixture, which looks set to be defined by the next generation.
This fixture comes at the end of a month where Ansu Fati and Pedri both penned long-term contracts at Barcelona with eye-catching release clause of €1billion (£850million) in place.
The two 18-year-olds are the brightest young talents in Spanish football and possibly beyond with both showing more than enough that they are already at home in football’s top tier.
Pedri – who played a ludicrous 72 senior matches for club and country in the 2020/21 campaign – looks set to miss the Camp Nou clash through injury, but in his place will be a player even younger.
Gavi, 17, was signed six years ago by Barca’s La Masia system after breaking records in Real Betis youth teams and, despite not completing a full 90 minutes in a professional match, started for Spain in both the semi-final and final of this month’s Nations League.
Yet above them all stands Ansu Fati; the 18-year-old forward who suffered a serious knee injury last November causing him to sit out 10 months of action.
The forward had to undergo multiple surgical operations after initial treatment was unsuccessful - ruling him out of the majority of the 2020/21 campaign with concerns that the injury may never fully heal.
Fati has netted 15 goals in 47 first-team appearances for the club – including striking twice upon his return this year - and also has broken through at international level with Spain - for whom he scored once in four caps, when aged 17.
The teenage sensation is the youngest scorer for Barcelona in the last 80 years, in the history of the Spanish national team, in the Champions League and in El Clasico, having netted against Real Madrid last season.
Having started just once so far this season, there are doubt if under-fire Barca boss Ronald Koeman will deploy him from the start in Sunday’s match but having inherited his No. 10 shirt, the teenager is not feeling the pressure of being Messi’s successor.
The situation of Real Madrid is not comparable to Barca; the exits of dressing room veterans Ronaldo and Ramos was managed by the club with a succession plan put in place by the club.
As important as Benzema remains for Los Blancos, their 21-year-old forward Vinicius Junior is now showing the form to fully justify the club’s €45million outlay on his signature four years ago.
Combining electric pace with sharp movement and dazzling dribbling skills, the Brazilian was always an outstanding prospect but is now transforming from a raw diamond to the real deal.
He has netted seven goals in 11 appearances this campaign – his best goal scoring season in the Spanish capital – with two goals in a virtuoso performance in the midweek Champions League win at Shakhtar Donestk.
The Brazilian downed Liverpool in last season’s Champions League quarter finals with a brace and has now developed into one of the best forwards in Europe.
He is a year older than compatriot Rodrygo Goes, who also netted in the win in Ukraine having scored the winner in Milan against Inter the previous month.
Eder Militao, another Brazilian, is excelling in the heart of the side’s new-look defence and aged just 23, is a major part of a team who no longer have Ramos nor Varane at their disposal.
The late summer transfer window of the outrageously talented midfielder Eduardo Camavinga, aged 18, is another indicator of Real Madrid’s long-term planning that is underway.
Despite having suffered recent defeat against Sheriff Tiraspol and Espanyol, Carlo Ancelotti’s side enter this game as favourites against a Barca side who – despite recent wins – are in a crisis of form.
Unconvincing home wins over Valencia and Dynamo Kiev in the past week have eased the pressure on Koeman but defeat in this game could conceivably see Barca finish the weekend in the bottom half of the standings, while Madrid could go top.
Former Barcelona captain Andres Iniesta insisted earlier this week that despite the form book, his former club could turn their season around: "Barca have the team to win El Clasico and La Liga."
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It remains to be seen what this current Barca side are capable of achieving this year, but they are very much one in transition and who, through the necessity of their financial situation, are now enjoying a glimpse of their future – of which there is plenty to be excited about.
In an era without Messi and Ronaldo, and without Suarez, Griezmann, Ramos and Varane, the giants of Spanish football already have the stars of future years at their disposal.
The question is which club, if either, have enough to challenge for major honours this season.
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