“Don’t mention the war.”
Much like the infamous Basil Fawlty sketch in Fawlty Towers it’s hard not to talk about the Clasico without talking about… well you know.
This season will be the first time since 2007 that Barcelona and Real Madrid will line up without either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo as part of their clubs.
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The game has a weird feel about it even without that sideshow. Neither side are top - although Real can go back there if they win, but Barca are down in seventh. The aura of invincibility over the rest of the league is no longer. Barcelona have endured one of the most catastrophic summers any elite club has ever had, and endeavours on the pitch so far haven't exactly been plain sailing. For Real it almost feels as if they’re just waiting for next summer, when they can unleash their saved up resources on a huge spending spree.
But that doesn’t mean you should tune out of the game this weekend, or stop marking it in your calendar in the future. Off the pitch there will always be a certain lustre of the two eternal rivals going at it, and on it there might be a new dynamic starting to develop…

Head Coach Ronald Koeman of FC Barcelona

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We spent pretty much all of the last decade billing this game as Messi v Ronaldo. Sure there were other plotlines such as Pep v Jose, Ramos v Pique and Pepe v everyone, and you could certainly argue that the loss of these other battles has contributed to the diminishing of this fixture, but ultimately it came down to those two.
However, with them gone the stage is set for some new faces to take over and, perhaps fittingly, the battle will come in midfield. It is fitting because the Messi v Ronaldo obsession often detracted from two historically good midfields. From Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Yaya Toure, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets to Luka Modric, Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil, Xabi Alonso and Casemiro, there have been some epic midfield operators.
And we could be at the start of another cycle of midfield excellence. On the one hand, Barcelona have Frenkie de Jong (24), Pedri (18) and Gavi (17) while Real have Eduardo Camavinga (18) and Federico Valverde (23) as well as the hugely exciting Sergio Arribas (20), who should see his first-team chances increase when one or both of Kroos and Modric step away.

Pedri.

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It is a shame that Pedri will miss the clash as he and Camavinga could be set to do battle against one another for at least the next decade. They are slightly different players, Pedri is perhaps more of a creator whereas Camavinga operates as a do-it-all box-to-box player, but they will both hold symbolic significance for each of their teams. Pedri is the Barca fan who the club swooped in to beat Real to his signing, whereas Madrid showed their savvy in bringing in Camavinga for a cut-price deal while their rivals were floundering financially.
And whilst Camavinga is excellent technically there is a notable difference in the sort of style he and Valverde bring compared to Pedri and De Jong. Camavinga and Valverde bring energy and dynamism where Pedri and De Jong have a certain grace with the ball at their feet. It is actually a marked change for Real after Kroos and Modric but it might be just what they need.
It should be added that there is a lot of excitement in the final third for both teams as well. At long last it looks as it Vinicius Jr has put it all together and at just 21 looks set to become the poster boy of the Clasico for the foreseeable future.
Or at least he could, were it not for the fact that a certain Kylian Mbappe seems certain to rock up at the Bernabeu next summer. Mbappe is widely expected to join Real on a free when his PSG contract expires and could form a devastating link-up with international team-mate Benzema and Vinicius.

Kylian Mbappe

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That’s where Camavinga and Valverde become key. With a forward like Benzema, who can act as Real's chief playmaker, the midfielders' roles become more based around ball acquisition and space manipulation. They don’t need to be completing a hundred passes a game, but they have to influence games in different ways. Camavinga particularly will be vital here. The way he can bring the ball up the pitch with his quick, short passes and his close control means that he can help Real counter quickly. And if they have Mbappe and Vinicius poised to break that could be lethal.
For Barcelona, they are going to need that control, mostly because we have no real clue how their attack will look moving forward. Ansu Fati’s new deal is huge for the club, and he will surely be their attacking talisman in the future, but after that? Memphis Depay has been a solid addition so far but long term he probably should be playing the same position as Fati.
They have tentatively been linked to Mbappe, as well as Erling Haaland, but it seems impossible they could afford either without further decimating the squad. In the B team Yusuf Demir is the most exciting attacking player but he’s more of a 10 than a striker or winger. Nico Gonzalez is supremely talented but he’s more of a holding midfielder.
So on the face of it, barring some extreme changes, you can imagine that both teams will have a fairly clear, and unique, identity as the rivalry moves forward. Both attacks should (hopefully) continue to have star names but the real battle? That’s going to be in the midfield.
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