Maestro of clasicos, Messi leads Barca at Madrid
Accustomed to thriving against his fierce rival, Lionel Messi will again lead Barcelona at Real Madrid as he aims for another scoring record. The big question is whether Luis Suarez will join him or watch from the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium bench.
Suarez will finish his four-month ban for biting Italy's Giorgio Chiellini at the World Cup just in time to dress and possibly debut for Barcelona against its archrival.
"We are excited for Luis to play because he will add his strength to the team," Messi said. "I'm happy for him because he has spent a long time off the pitch."
Coach Luis Enrique has given no hint as to whether he will play Suarez.
Either way, Messi will have Neymar to accompany him as Barcelona looks to maintain the lead of the Spanish league, and extend its four-point advantage over Madrid.
Here are five things to know about Barcelona's players and coach:
Messi the Maestro
For all of his trophies and awards, Messi has, above all, made his mark by playing at his best against Real Madrid.
Last March, his hat trick led Barcelona to a thrilling 4-3 win at Madrid, giving him a clasico record of 21 goals.
Now he has a chance to equal or surpass a nearly 60-year-old record and become the league's top scorer, and what better stage than the ground of his No. 1 rival.
Messi needs one goal to match Telmo Zarra's milestone of 251 goals the Athletic Bilbao great established in 1955.
Messi has proven to be equally dangerous as a playmaker this season, taking on that responsibility with Xavi Hernandez being phased out of the starting lineup. Messi has scored nine times and created nine more goals for his teammates with his passes.
"The important thing is to try and win the game, not Zarra's record," Messi said.
Despite the ongoing legal headaches his transfer is causing Barcelona, Neymar is showing why the club went to such lengths to sign him at the start of last season.
The Brazil striker has recovered remarkably from his injury-shortened World Cup. He has meshed well with Messi to form a dangerous strike duo after being too deferential in his first season at Barcelona.
Both scorers look for one another and yet know when not to force that extra pass, and instead take the shot that is there.
The results have been a team-high 10 goals for Neymar, with four coming from Messi's passes.
"We are playing this way to help the team with our goals and our passes," Neymar said. "Messi is the best, he thinks so fast. He is a step above the rest."
Claudio Bravo arrived from Real Sociedad with the hefty task of filling the void left by Victor Valdes after a decade in Barcelona's goal.
The Chile 'keeper has responded wonderfully and not allowed a goal through eight rounds, a record in the league to start a season.
Bravo will now face his biggest challenge. Bravo conceded 18 goals in Sociedad's last four visits to Madrid, with nine coming from Cristiano Ronaldo.
Man in the Middle
For years, there was little doubt that Xavi would orchestrate Barcelona's attack while Sergio Busquets protected his back.
But Xavi's age and a nagging pelvis injury for Busquets have left in doubt what midfield Luis Enrique will deploy against Madrid.
New signing Ivan Rakitic is tapped to start, and Javier Mascherano has played well the last two games for Busquets as a holding midfielder, recovering his former role that he maintained with Argentina while playing in defense for Barcelona.
Beyond doubt is the presence of Andres Iniesta, fresh off his best performance of the season against Ajax.
Luis Enrique will feel right at home on the sidelines of his first clasico.
Besides coaching Celta Vigo when they played at Madrid last season, Luis Enrique is one of the few who has experienced the game from both sides.
Luis Enrique played for Madrid from 1991-96 before joining Barcelona, where he played until retiring in 2004. In his 14 clasicos in Barcelona's burgundy-and-blue, the former midfielder scored five goals against his old team.