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Transfer Rater: Malcom to Arsenal, Mata to Juve

Football Whispers
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Barcelona vs. Real Madrid, Messi vs. Ronaldo always more than just a game

The ESPN FC crew give their take on Michael Cox's combined Clasico best XI and then reveal their own best XI lineups ahead of Sunday's big game.

Luis Enrique ducked the first question but they weren't going to give up that easily so back they came again, and again and again. There were 32 hours to go until Barcelona faced the English champions Manchester City; defeat could see them get knocked out of Europe, while victory would see them reach the quarterfinal for the eighth consecutive season. The Champions League stage had been set, quite literally: blue backdrop, white stars and sponsors' logos. But they still couldn't help their minds drifting elsewhere.

Thirty-two hours to go? One hundred twenty-eight hours to go, more like.

Barcelona-City was no meaningless fixture, but one after the other they asked about the Clasico, coming up four days later. The manager refused to be drawn into the game that draws everyone in and so, not long after, did Andres Iniesta. "This is the only game that exists," Luis Enrique insisted, pointing at City and refusing to utter the word "Madrid," but they insisted too. "There is only one game," the coach repeated. Yet if there is only one game, and sometimes in Spain it can feel like there is, it is this one. The man who crossed the divide and revelled in the rivalry knows that better than anyone.

As a player, Luis Enrique scored five times against Madrid, claiming that it was "gratifying" to have an entire stadium abusing him; not long after retirement, he described the famous 6-2 as a "footballing orgasm" and now, as a manager, he stands right at the heart of it, trying to act like it's not on his mind too. He has only taken charge once so far, back in the autumn when his team was beaten 3-1, and he cannot be sure that he will get another chance after this one, either; there are presidential elections in the summer. Best to enjoy it while he can.

Simply, there is no bigger game.

Luis Enrique dodged plenty of Clasico talk even before Barca finished off Man City in the Champions League.

"Barcelona-Real Madrid is the game of the century, even if it happens six times a season," as one player puts it. Yet this season, it hasn't. There has only been one Clasico so far, something that may even have helped to enhance the sense of occasion, but it is ever-present even when it is not being played. The rivalry between the two clubs runs through everything in Spanish football, permanently dominating the agenda and the money, dividing supporters, the media and the country. Even a Copa del Rey final in which Madrid are not playing becomes another episode in this story. Nor is it just this way in Spain any more.

"The Clasico is everything," Gerard Pique said this week. Everything? It's not that daft a thing to say. It takes over. A news conference was held by the channel showing the game, the number of cameras and the technological advances which are not much of an advance, really. Carlo Ancelotti arranged a fish supper for his players. A game of golf and padel (a modified version of racquetball) was arranged for ex-players. The wives will be compared. Predictions are sought by everyone and anyone, as if they have any real value.

One story on Friday morning even had a handwriting expert analysing the autographs of Messi and Ronaldo. Apparently Ronaldo's autograph shows his "false humility, egocentrism and his sensitivity to criticism" -- Messi's, meanwhile, shows his ambition. It'll surprise you to learn that this particular story appeared in one of the Catalan papers, not in Madrid.

Infused with political meaning, the social history behind Barcelona and Real Madrid is also powerful, the experience lived on lots of different levels by millions of different people, and lends to the idea that this is more than just a game. Though even the game itself is pretty special. "It's a pity to get into all that other stuff when the football is so good," Jorge Valdano once said.

You're probably familiar with some of the facts now but these are the two biggest clubs on the planet, with the two best players, men who have won the last six Ballon d'Or trophies between them and seven in total. Only one player has ever won more of them than Cristiano Ronaldo; he will start for Barcelona on Sunday. Luis Suarez was the Premier League's Player of the Year last season; Gareth Bale was the Premier League's Player of the Year the season before.

Bale is the most expensive player in history and Ronaldo the second most expensive, although Neymar, who officially cost 57 million euros, may yet overtake both. Suarez, last summer's addition, cost 80 million euros, meaning that the two forward lines alone cost just short of 360 million euros. There will 98,000 people waiting for them at the Camp Nou on Sunday, ready to hold up 98,000 pieces of coloured card. Dubious figures distributed by marketing departments talk of a TV audience numbering hundreds of millions.

Hype? Yes, absolutely. But it does tend to live up to that hype. Since Messi and Ronaldo have been at Madrid and Barcelona, there has never been a 0-0 result. In fact, you have to go back 36 games and 14 years for the last one. And while there's something familiar about it every time, certainly over the last six years of Messi-Ronaldo dominance, each Clasico has the ingredients to make it stand out.

Like Luka Modric's first start in three months, lining up alongside Toni Kroos 134 days later. Iker Casillas, who conceded his first ever Clasico goal to Luis Enrique, playing at the Camp Nou 896 days later and perhaps for the last time. Javier Mascherano finally playing in midfield, even if he did tell the media "it would be better if Sergio plays, not me." Or like the pressure on Carlo Ancelotti and the very different pressure on Luis Enrique. How about it being Dani Alves' last Clasico? Alves? What about Xavi Hernandez, arguably the most important Spanish player ever?

The era of Messi and Ronaldo in La Liga has only served to up the ante (and the storylines) surrounding the Clasico.

Even Messi vs. Ronaldo shifts, especially as their roles have changed since Christmas. It is not that long ago since Messi was 12 goals behind Ronaldo in the league; he is now two goals ahead. Ronaldo was whistled in his last game, prompting him to mutter dark thoughts; Messi had his name chanted, the furrowed brow gone.

The two men are the embodiment of their teams, and their teams have crossed paths too. Madrid ended 2014 as the world's best side; since the turn of the year, Barcelona have climbed back ahead of them. Last weekend they beat Levante 2-0; before that they had not won in three.

Meanwhile, Barcelona began 2015 with defeat in San Sebastian and a crisis that saw the sporting director walk and the president call for summer elections, a move that seemed guaranteed to cost the manager his job. Instead, they have won 18 of 19 since then. And Messi, whom Jeremy Mathieu confirmed had confronted his manager in training, is now playing better than ever. "Frightening," one recent headline said.

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"Ronaldo down, Messi up," said another front cover. Crisis travels on the puente aereo, they say in Spain. The puente aereo is the flight link between the two cities. They've both been up and they've both been down, exaggeration everywhere, lessons never learned. The headlines in Madrid at the start of the season said that Madrid could win a "sextuplet"; this week, the headlines in Catalonia talked about "operation treble."

There is something about the Clasico that means every game feels like it somehow marks an era. A Champions League meeting remains possible, and that would eclipse even this. The title race will not be over no matter what happens on Sunday -- both teams have to go the Sanchez Pizjuan, where Sevilla have not lost in a year, and receive third-placed Valencia -- but Sunday will go a long way to define their seasons. Barcelona and Real Madrid meet again. And there is just one point between them. One point and 113 years of history.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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