Neymar, Messi and Ronaldo lead the line in our Clasico combined XI
It's a game. It's an exercise. It's the sort of thing you might do when hanging with friends. Picking a combined starting XI between the two giants of Spanish football, Real Madrid and Barcelona ahead of the Clasico.
First, a couple obvious caveats. This is not an absolute judgement on these players and their standing in the history of the game. It's a snapshot of who you'd rather have right now, based loosely on the past few months. Also, this is a combined XI, not a real team. There may be some sort of fancy tactical set-up involving these sets of players that could work more effectively. But I went with a straight 4-3-3 which, conveniently, is what Real Madrid play and what Barcelona played for most of the season.
Goalkeeper: Keylor Navas (Real Madrid)
Unlike the outfield position, I'm not sure either goalkeeper is among the very best in the world. Though, to be fair, it's often tricky to judge keepers for teams like Barcelona or Real Madrid because their defenders are often so high up the pitch and they often spend ages sitting around with the ball at the other end. Both keepers are prone to outstanding saves and craven mistakes, but Navas just shades it for me.
Right-back: Dani Carvajal (Real Madrid)
Much as I like Sergi Roberto, this is pretty open and shut for me. Carvajal has been on an upward curve for 18 months, to the point that he's making $35 million Danilo look like a bigger waste of money than he was. He's consistent and rarely has defensive lapses and, going forward, he's become hugely effective.
Centre-backs: Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid), Gerard Pique (Barcelona)
It might annoy Steve Nicol (though I'm not sure he's in love with the Barcelona centre-backs either), but Ramos gets into my XI for his non-defensive attributes as well. He hasn't just scored important goals, he's scored many goals -- 10 in all competitions -- and is a tremendous threat on set pieces. His leadership on this team is unquestioned. And while it's true that when he does make mistakes he often looks very bad, the fact is he makes far fewer than some folks suggest. Oh, and he hasn't been sent off in more than a year...
In a rocky season for Barca's defence, Pique's played alongside three different centre-backs, in two different formations, with a recycled central midfielder on one side (Sergi Roberto) and an off-form Jordi Alba on the other -- he's been remarkably consistent. Playing centre-back on a team like this means often making open play tackles and defending balls over the top, something central defenders hate to do because it leaves them exposed and he has coped with it well.
Left-back: Marcelo (Real Madrid)
He may well be the best left-back of his generation. And he's an obvious nod ahead of Alba, who has endured a difficult season. Few would argue that Marcelo is devastating going forward. He's not just a gifted dribbler, his crossing is good too and, when he cuts inside, he becomes an additional creative playmaker, something Madrid use to great effect. People point to his defensive lapses, but they're often the result of being caught up the pitch, which is the price you pay for being an attacking full-back. In one-on-one situations, he's much better defensively than folks give him credit for.
Defensive midfield: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona)
Despite not having the greatest season, he gets in ahead of Casemiro... just. Both do a lot of important work off the ball, the difference is that Busquets manages to do it while committing far fewer fouls and being a tidier, if less ambitious, passer. Busquets also brings a wealth of experience which Casemiro simply doesn't have and is a naturally, calming presence in the side.
Midfield: Toni Kroos (Real Madrid) and Luka Modric (Real Madrid)
For me, Modric is an automatic choice. He's the glue that holds Real Madrid together and, even at 31, retains a mobility that makes him the ideal two-way player. He somehow always manages to be available for a pass when a teammate is under pressure, even in the most crowded of midfields.
The other slot goes to Kroos. With all due respect to Andres Iniesta, he has only started nine league games this season and, by his standards, has only managed to shine intermittently. Kroos, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency as a passer and as a creator. Ivan Rakitic might have been a shoo-in two years ago, but this has been his most difficult season in a Barcelona shirt. More than most, he has suffered by the instability around him.
Forwards: Lionel Messi (Barcelona), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid) and Neymar (Barcelona)
I don't need to waste much time discussing the first two. Messi has scored 45 goals this season in all competitions and Ronaldo has 31. And that's before you get into the intangibles of what these two provide. Some point to Ronaldo's declining athletic skills -- he is 32 after all -- and while he may not be the velociraptor he once was, he remains perhaps the most natural goalscorer in the game. And, frankly, writing this after that performance at the Bernabeu against Bayern, there's no way he's missing out.
So the question becomes which of the other four forwards misses out. And, guess what, it's tight. I ruled out Gareth Bale first, because he's been slowed by injuries and, even when fit, hasn't been the force he was last season.
I think Karim Benzema has been very good when fit. In some ways, he's the Busquets of Madrid, the guy who makes others look good. He offers assists and work rate. The problem is Luis Suarez has scored nearly twice as many goals in all competitions this season (32 to 17) and, in terms of work rate, more than matches the Frenchman. So he misses out too.
Thus, it came down to Suarez and Neymar for me. The head says Suarez. He scores more goals, he records more assists, he's more durable and, even when he's having an off-day, he still offers plenty of effort. Neymar sometimes disappears. And the tactical nerd in me would also point out that Suarez would be a better complement to Messi and Ronaldo in the combined XI.
But the heart says Neymar. By a hair.
Why? Maybe because the Brazilian can switch on at any time and conjure something out of nothing in a way that perhaps nobody on this team not named Lionel can. Or maybe it's that performance against Paris Saint-Germain (though why it should stand out more than the awful one against Juventus, I couldn't tell you). Anyway, it's a coin flip between the two. And this time the heart wins.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.