By CALEB SONNELAND
One of the most enticing soccer rivalries in the world revs up Saturday as Lionel Messi and Barcelona travel to the Bernabeu to take on Real Madrid in a key league match-up that is also part of a unique stretch of match-ups between the arch-rivals.
Known as 'El Clasico', Barcelona-Real Madrid is a fixture most fans have marked down as a must-watch game, but the two sides will now meet four times in the span of just under a month and in three competitions. Predicting one matchup is tough in itself, but with the two sides set to clash four times in that amount of time, it becomes an even taller order.
Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola has labeled the stretch of matches "a gift" for soccer fans everywhere, and it's hard to say otherwise.
Just four days after Saturday's match, the two Spanish giants meet in Valencia CF's La Mestalla for the Copa del Rey, and toward the tail end of the month, they play the first of two legs in their Champions League semifinal.
Real Madrid captain, Iker Casillas, insists that tomorrow's match is hugely important, despite the fact that Barcelona look to be slipping away in La Liga as Pep Guardiola & Co. are now eight points clear at the top.
Both managers have proved to be masterful tacticians, and you can bet that Mourinho will be looking to put some of those lessons learned from their shellacking earlier in the season to good use. Guardiola is relishing the idea of a four-peat El Clasico and will have the Catalans gunning for four wins over their heated rivals.
Mental and physical fatigue will no doubt be factors down the road, and the starting lineup for Saturday's game could well be strikingly different from the one that will take the field for the second leg of the Champions League semifinal on May 3rd.
Karim Benzema will be a welcome addition for Real Madrid as the French striker has been on point lately and scored more goals in March (7) than any other player in Europe's top five leagues. Add Emmanuel Adebayor and a fit Gonzalo Higuain to the mix, and Madrid have all their offensive guns ready. Even Kaka is healthy if that says anything.
Barcelona will be without the recently-injured striker, Bojan, and Carlos Puyol is still to recover from his injury. However, the weapons that Guardiola still has available to him speak for themselves and should at least equal any threat posed by the Madrid giants.
What happens tomorrow is anyone's guess, but there should be fireworks at the Bernabeu, as there were at the Camp Nou back in November. Huge amounts of pressure will be placed on both clubs, and the headlines in the Spanish media during this three-week, four-game stint will be rife with action.
How do you see this stretch of four matches playing out? Do you think Barcelona will win more of the match-ups, or do you think Real Madrid will surprise the La Liga leaders?
Share your thoughts below.