21st-Century Clasico: Best of Real Madrid vs. Best of Barcelona
El Clasico: one of the world's most watched games, a rivalry like few others—and this year, with even more meaning than usual.
The Santiago Bernabeu will host the game on Sunday as Real Madrid look to put a nail in the coffin of Barcelona's title hopes, with the Catalan outfit needing a win to claw back ground on the league leaders. Games are running out, and all the big names will need to be on top form to impact this time out.
Right now, both sides have plenty of incredible talent to pick from—but what if they could choose the best to have worn their respective shirts over the last few years? Where would the hardest decisions be?
We've assessed every single player to have featured for either of Real and Barca in the 21st century and picked the best side possible for both.
GK: Iker Casillas
Real Madrid are the home side, so they go first.
The goalkeeper position isn't a struggle to choose; Iker Casillas dominated between the sticks for most of the century until his departure to FC Porto almost two years ago.
His lightning reflexes, influential presence and reliability were huge factors for Madrid in challenging at the top end of Spanish and European competition while at his peak, and even if his last couple of seasons at the Bernabeu were regrettable and forgettable, Iker remains a true legend of the club.
RB: Michel Salgado
A regular back four for Los Blancos, starting with Michel Salgado on the right.
The defender won more than 50 caps for Spain and was first-choice for Real for close to a decade, having previously impressed at Celta Vigo.
Salgado was a rugged, aggressive tackler, but he had plenty of ambition to get forward and support the attack, too—perhaps not quite as stylistically impressive as current incumbent Dani Carvajal but not much less effective. He was an awful lot better defensively and an overall important member of the team as Real won the Champions League in 2000 and 2002.
CB: Fernando Hierro
One of the game's great ball-playing defenders of all time, Fernando Hierro was as adept in midfield as in defence—but it's from the back line his leadership, aerial strength and reading of the game came to the fore.
A great captain for Real Madrid, Hierro won three Champions League titles with the club and netted over 100 goals, thanks largely to his prowess from set pieces.
Since retiring, Hierro has been an assistant manager at Madrid, sporting director at Malaga and now is the head coach at Real Oviedo, who are angling for promotion from La Segunda to Spain's top flight.
CB: Sergio Ramos
The first selection in our team from Zinedine Zidane's current crop of stars, Sergio Ramos has been a long-serving member of the back line at the Bernabeu and is among the top names in the world in his position.
While he guarantees mayhem from time to time in both penalty boxes, few sides would pass up on Ramos' determination, will to win and penchant for scoring late, vital goals.
Our Clasico matchup would keep viewers glued to the action until the final seconds knowing Ramos was on the pitch.
It's a straight battle between two brilliant Brazilians for the left-back spot, but we'll just about opt for Marcelo.
The current first-choice at the club and a regular for Zidane whenever fit, Marcelo has every characteristic of an offensive full-back you could wish to see: athleticism, skill, technique, creativity, vision, pace and daring.
His recovery work is perhaps even more important than his defensive acumen, given his drive to attack, but he is never lacking in work rate and has even developed as a captain with his leadership and influence on the team.
CM: Claude Makelele
For Madrid, we're going with a 4-2-3-1 system, meaning a pure anchor in midfield to help balance out those further upfield.
That means Claude Makelele, the man so good in the defensive-midfield position that the role has become synonymous with his own name.
Like Salgado, Makelele joined Real from Celta and left them for a Premier League club—but in between, he was incredible, stopping all manner of opposition attackers and schemers with his tenacity, positioning and commitment to putting the team first.
Almost every major Real Madrid player of that period—2000 to 2003—acknowledged the influence Makelele had on the team, and he's a must-have for our best XI.
CM: Zinedine Zidane
If Makelele brings the steel, Zinedine Zidane brings the skills.
The Real No. 5 was one of the greatest-ever playmakers, shining at Juventus before Real Madrid and for France on the international stage, winning everything along the way...and he is now attempting to do so again, this time as manager.
For our XI, he's on the pitch, though—not on the sidelines—with his grace and capacity to retain possession in midfield an incredibly important trait, given the opposition. Add in his vision, range of passing and ability to score powerful efforts from range, and he's a guaranteed starter in Madrid's greatest sides.
RW: Luis Figo
There's competition in the attacking midfield line, no question, but we're opting for width, pace and tremendous ability on the ball from Luis Figo over the likes of Angel Di Maria and Mesut Ozil.
It's close to decide, and much might depend on preference of attacking style—but given who else we've selected in the offensive lines, Figo suits our need for balance.
The Portuguese star was, of course, a former Barcelona man—and he was immense at the Camp Nou—but he's still best remembered for his time at Madrid, during which he won the World Player of the Year award.
Five years in Madrid, two league titles and a huge volume of goals and assists make him a great starting point for our attack.
LW: Cristiano Ronaldo
If Figo holds wide, Cristiano Ronaldo brings the freedom and unstoppable drive to cut in off the opposite flank.
The greatest goalscorer in Real Madrid history, Cristiano is still making waves and records—as evidenced by his treble against Bayern Munich, becoming the first player to hit 100 goals in the Champions League in midweek.
Ronaldo remains a phenomenon, even as his game undergoes another change, and his presence in the team is as guaranteed as the ball hitting the back of the net after leaving his boot.
To link midfield to attack, to provide inspiration from the front and to provide clutch moments against a big rival, it has to be Raul.
There are any number of Real Madrid greats who have graced the role somewhere between a No. 10 and a second forward, but Raul can do so many jobs—and all of them with intelligence and quality—that he's a sure pick.
A whopping 16 seasons in the first team, over 700 games and more than 300 goals make him a legend, a hero figure and a player Los Blancos fans want in the side against Barcelona.
Up front, there can be only one, and that one has to be Ronaldo.
Ahead of all others, his combined game of power, precision, skill and lethal finishing made him the world's finest striker in a generation, his time at the top ruined and shortened only by injury.
Even so, over 100 goals in fewer than 180 games for the club showcase the kind of relentless instinct he had in the final third; capable of all kinds of finishes and of creating chances for himself, Ronaldo was a fearful presence in the side and would lead the line for this team in style.
On the bench, seven more to cover, several of whom could easily have made the XI itself.
GK: Cesar Sanchez—Iker's replacement in Madrid's first team.
FB: Roberto Carlos—Interchangeable with Marcelo for style, substance and quality.
CB: Pepe—A long-serving defender who has gotten better with age.
CDM: Xabi Alonso—As cool in possession as Zidane, defensively aware and with great creativity in his boots.
CAM: Toni Kroos—Midfield or further forward, Kroos brings every technical element to the team required.
WF: Gareth Bale—Incredible pace and power, shots off the flank and tremendous work ethic.
CF: Ruud van Nistelrooy—If Ronaldo can't find the back of the net, this Dutch striker will.
GK: Marc-Andre ter Stegen
Over to the Catalan outfit, then, and Barcelona's goalkeeper immediately presents a difficult choice: a long-serving, very good goalkeeper or one who has been No. 1 for a much shorter timeframe, but is clearly elite?
We've opted for the latter, with current stopper Marc-Andre ter Stegen being a much better all-round goalkeeper than Victor Valdes and having a higher ceiling to his game. Despite Valdes being the presence between the sticks for years, the bottom line is that the German has more attributes than the Spaniard, and even with those they share—footwork, composure, reflexes—Ter Stegen is Valdes' equal, if not better.
El Clasico is a big game, and we're going for the still up-and-coming brilliance of the man who will play on Sunday.
RB: Dani Alves
Right-back is perhaps the easiest position to pick for Barcelona, much in the way that goalkeeper was for Real Madrid; Dani Alves dominated the right side for years, and his style and quality helped define the way Barca ruled La Liga and Europe for a period.
Aggressive, rapid, with great delivery from wide and a real understanding with those playing ahead of him, Alves was a threat on the counter, always an outlet and as good at recycling play as his midfield team-mates.
Having departed to Juventus, his presence has been missed, reminding fans just how good he was.
CB: Carles Puyol
Barcelona have options at centre-back, perhaps four genuinely top-quality names, but chief among them is Carles Puyol.
The one-club man moved from full-back rampager to centre-back aggressor shortly into his 15-year stay in the first team and steered the club toward huge success, including six league titles and three Champions League wins.
Puyol was strong in the air—despite his relatively short stature—quick over the ground and tactically intelligent. He was one of the building blocks for Pep Guardiola's great team and is an important part of ours.
Alongside Puyol, we opt for Abelardo Fernandez, one of Barca's great defenders from the 1990s who just about edged his career into the 21st Century, departing the Camp Nou in 2002 after almost a decade of service.
A tremendous competitor, Abelardo had the physicality to deal with any forward—despite being under six feet tall—and his ability to play from the back was an underrated part of his game.
Injuries hampered him late in his career, and he retired early—barely into his 30s—but still won over 50 caps for Spain, won Olympic gold in Barcelona and helped the team win the Cup Winners' Cup as well as two league titles.
LB: Sergi Barjuan
A regular team-mate of Abelardo's, Sergi Barjuan was another who graced the Camp Nou pitch for most of the 90s and into the new century, departing for Atletico Madrid in 2002.
Sergi was a graduate of the club's academy and spent almost nine seasons as a first choice, raiding the flank with his combination of technique and determination, defending aggressively but also contributing heavily to the attack.
He won three league titles at Barca, as well as the Cup Winners' Cup, and won over 50 caps for Spain.
DM: Pep Guardiola
Into holding midfield, a genuine dilemma: the iconic Pep as player, or the man he instilled in his own role when manager, Sergio Busquets?
We've opted for the master on this occasion, with Guardiola ruling the centre of Barcelona's midfield for over a decade until 2001, graduating from the youth team to become captain of the seniors, playing almost 500 times in total.
This one chance to bring together the man who inspired, then put together, one of the best midfields in football history, along with the two finest servants he had as manager, cannot be passed up. Guardiola anchors our midfield.
No surprises to see Xavi Hernandez as one of the two interiores in our 4-3-3 lineup.
A midfielder who redefined not just a position and the stature required for it, but also a generation of how football could be played, Xavi had breathtaking control of matches with his technique and creativity, composure and class.
He bridged the divide between the end of Pep's playing years and Guardiola's time as manager, and the influence on his game is as obvious as it is impressive.
CM: Andres Iniesta
The second Barca player in our XI who still plays for the team now under Luis Enrique, Andres Iniesta has been a complete creative midfielder for the Catalan outfit, similar in style to Xavi but with a more individualistic element to his game with his dribbling ability.
Never a regular scorer of goals, Iniesta nonetheless is capable of influencing the biggest of matches at the most critical of times.
Captain of the team under Lucho, Iniesta helps provide the bridge between control and creation in our side.
RW: Lionel Messi
For Ronaldo on Real's team, see Messi on Barca's.
The record breaker, the milestone maker and the genius at work, mixing his unstoppable blend of footwork, speed and unerring finishing to be Barca's primary goal threat and one of the most watchable players in the world.
Just shy of 500 club goals for Barcelona since making his first-team bow, Messi is an eight-time Liga winner, has four Champions League titles and has well over 100 caps at international level—and he's not yet 30.
Messi is the superior talent, the more consistent scorer and for many the best in the world, but Ronaldinho perhaps had even more fans on their feet at his peak, and he takes the opposite flank in the attack.
The flamboyant Brazilian forward had unrivalled individual skill, could beat an entire defence with flair as much as efficiency and had goals aplenty in his boots, too.
His early partnership with Messi was a sight to behold, and we have no doubts about reuniting them in our front line.
CF: Luis Suarez
Centre stage in the attack is current No. 9 Luis Suarez, edging out Samuel Eto'o by virtue of a better strike rate—and a much better one, at that.
Eto'o was a clinical, lethal, rapid poacher who perfectly fit the Barca team and he notched 130 goals in 199 games, but Suarez is on another level: fewer than 15 goals behind with around 60 fewer games played and still climbing fast, averaging more than a goal per game in 2015/16 which Eto'o never managed at the Camp Nou.
Add in the aggressive element to his game, the relentless work rate that Suarez brings to ensure the defence never gets a moment's rest, and he's the clear choice to start up front.
Still plenty of talent on the bench, several of whom we've already touched on as first-XI possibilities.
GK: Victor Valdes—A long-term No. 1, deserves to be remembered as a big part of the team.
FB: Eric Abidal—Left side or central, Abidal's pace and reading of the game make him a fine replacement.
CB: Gerard Pique—Along with Rafa Marquez, could easily have been in the XI.
CDM: Sergio Busquets—Guardiola's heir and current indispensable holding midfielder.
CAM: Rivaldo—A ferocious blend of physicality and attacking quality.
WF: Neymar—The impact man off the bench, bringing skill and creativity along with goals.
CF: Samuel Eto'o—When you need a goal, there aren't many better players to call upon.