Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are no longer stars of El Clasico but Barcelona and Real Madrid already have their new generation of stars ahead of Sunday’s La Liga meeting
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.
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.
The question is which club, if either, have enough to challenge for major honours this season.