Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Key Players, Latest Team News for El Clasico 2015

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistNovember 19, 2015

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi (R) stands past Real Madrid's Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo during the 'El clasico' Spanish League football match Real Madrid vs Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on March 23, 2014. Barcelona won 4-3.    AFP PHOTO/ DANI POZO        (Photo credit should read DANI POZO/AFP/Getty Images)
DANI POZO/Getty Images

The race for this season's La Liga crown reaches a crossroads on Saturday when Real Madrid and Barcelona collide in the first Clasico encounter of the 2015-16 campaign.

League leaders Barca head to the Santiago Bernabeu with a precious three-point lead over their derby rivals, but Los Merengues can go a long way in rescuing their season if they manage to emerge with three points in Week 12.

Rafa Benitez's side lost 3-2 to Sevilla in their most recent outing, but the team now has a cleaner bill of health after seeing Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Sergio Ramos return to their ranks.

Striker Karim Benzema remains a doubt for Saturday's hosts, however, after Spanish radio station COPE reported he's struggling with a recurring hamstring injury (via Spanish newspaper AS).

The Daily Mail's John Downes wrote last week that goalkeeper Keylor Navas is in a race to be fit for the clash:

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But the biggest question of the weekend is whether Lionel Messi will make a timely return from his knee injury to feature in Madrid, having last played on September 26.

Manager Luis Enrique has coped with a difficult injury list of late, with Rafinha out until 2016 and Ivan Rakitic looking to be fit for Saturday's outing, according to AS (h/t Football Espana).

Taking all those potential absences into account, we've selected one player from each Clasico combatant bearing the biggest responsibilities this week.

Sergio Ramos

Angel Fernandez/Associated Press

Madridistas everywhere will have cringed at the sight of seeing captain Sergio Ramos crumple to the turf in Seville a fortnight ago, where he had to withdraw early from the action after hurting his shoulder netting an acrobatic opener.

It was touch and go whether the Spain international would feature in El Clasico following news of surgery being required, but Breathe Sport reported that decision has been delayed until after Saturday's duel:

It's hardly a coincidence Real went on to concede three goals to Sevilla following Ramos' departure, and without doing a disservice to Raphael Varane or Pepe, their captain is simply a more elite class of defensive totem.

Some strikers would look to the potentially fragile Ramos as an easy target, but opposing striker Luis Suarez insisted he won't be gunning for Real's centre-back star despite his shoulder blow, per Sky Sports: "I am not going to go looking for [Ramos'] shoulder, in the same way nobody is going to look for Messi's knee. We are fellow football players and we do not want to hurt anyone."

That may come as a slight relief for Los Blancos, but regardless of whether they target Ramos or not, a front three of Suarez, Neymar and, possibly, Messi have the quality to devastate any back line, fully fit or not.

Ramos has averaged 3.8 interceptions per game so far this season, per—at least one more than any other player—and only Varane (5.5) has averaged more clearances per game than their leader (five).

Lionel Messi

Emilio Morenatti/Associated Press

It's inevitable that Messi should be considered the most critical part of Barcelona's plans this weekend, and even though his side have got along just fine without him, Saturday's test is a different ball game altogether.

Sport Witness sourced numerous outlets in Spain all reporting that whether it be from the bench or in a starting capacity, Messi will have a role to play at the Bernabeu:

The beauty of his ability means that even if Messi does come off the bench for a second-half cameo, there's no telling just how he can affect the fixture—even if Barca happen to trail at that time.

But Enrique isn't without his alternative weapons, and former Real and Barcelona striker Alfonso Perez lavished praise on those options, per Ramiro Aldunate of Marca.

Perez said:

[Messi's] layoff has shown that Neymar and Luis Suarez can carry the team.

Neymar has risen to the challenge and then some.

It seemed like Messi's absence might hinder Barca, but the way he's playing, Neymar is making people forget about Messi.

Lalo R. Villar/Associated Press

Nevertheless, Messi is a near-invaluable commodity in this fixture, having scored more goals in El Clasico games than any other player (21), with 14 of those coming in La Liga fixtures.

Sevilla winger Yevhen Konoplyanka enjoyed a man-of-the-match display in his side's victory over Real, and Messi will also look to dazzle out wide should Los Blancos' flanks stand out as a weakness once again.