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No Messi, no Ronaldo: No problem, as the Clasico is ready for a new hero

The last time we witnessed a Clasico without both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world was a different place. Donald Trump was about to host the first season of "Celebrity Apprentice," which featured Nadia Comaneci, Lennox Lewis and Gene Simmons, Tesla had yet to sell a single car, and Netflix was primarily a business that posted something called DVDs via something called "snail mail."

When it comes to world football, Barcelona and Real Madrid have defined the last decade on and off the pitch. They won nine of the past 10 Liga titles, and one or the other has been champions of Europe seven of the past 10 seasons. They have grown as brands -- plastered everywhere across apparel, social media and video games -- and symbols, embedded in a common consciousness that goes beyond football fans, extending to water cooler conversations everywhere.

And when they collide in a Clasico, everyone takes notice.

Or, as former Real Madrid midfielder Ze Roberto put it: "This rivalry brings the world to a standstill. It's not just about Madrid and Barcelona, not just about Spain. It's global."

The two men who have most driven this in the modern era, of course, are Ronaldo and Messi. Neither will be on the pitch on Sunday. Ronaldo, of course, moved to Juventus last summer, while Messi is injured. For Real Madrid, this was always going to be a season of transition without the resident G.O.A.T. candidate, and so it's proven, as they sit seventh in the table with a mediocre 4-2-3 win-draw-loss record. Barcelona, at least until Messi's return, find themselves in a similar position.

Adding a layer of spice to the contest is the fact that neither team has fired on all cylinders this season. "Without Cristiano, Real Madrid cannot score goals," says Steve McManaman, a Champions League winner with Madrid. "There is a lot of pressure on [Real Madrid manager Julen] Lopetegui."

That's an understatement. Before Tuesday's Champions League win over Viktoria Plzen, a narrow 2-1 victory that was nothing to write home about, Real Madrid had lost four of their past five games. Lopetegui, who took over in the summer, has struggled to replace Ronaldo's goals. That's what happens when you sell a guy who averaged 50 a season and your priciest summer signing is an 18-year-old long-term project, Vinicius Junior, who won't be ready for a while, as evidenced by the fact that he has seen 15 minutes of top-flight action since joining the club.

"Real Madrid need a Cristiano," adds McManaman. "When you have a guy who scores a goal a game and he leaves and is not replaced, you have a problem."

That's part of the reason why this is Real Madrid's worst start in La Liga since 2001-02.

But it's not as if everything is rosy at the Camp Nou, either. They may be top of a congested La Liga table -- five clubs are separated by two points -- but you have to go back 13 years to find the last time Barcelona had fewer points at this stage of the campaign. They have played 13 games this season and conceded in nine of them. That's even with a goalkeeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, who is staking a legitimate claim as the best in the world.

Coach Ernesto Valverde may have thought sorting a leaky defence would be his biggest priority. Now, with Messi out, he needs to take care of the other end of the pitch as well.

That won't be easy. His centre-forward, Luis Suarez, has scored just twice from open play since last May. Of the two expensive wide forwards Barcelona bought in the past two seasons, one, Ousmane Dembele, has blown hot and cold, while the other, Malcom, has played 28 minutes in 2018-19.

Yet this is the Clasico. This is where tides are turned. This is where heroes become icons.

It's carpe diem time. Most of all, for Lopetegui.

Marco Asensio, so often a potent threat last season, could also be a key figure on Sunday depending on where he plays.
Marco Asensio, so often a potent threat last season, could also be a key figure on Sunday depending on where he plays.

"Real Madrid is in crisis, and a loss would affect them much more because Lopetegui's head is on the chopping block," says Real Madrid legend Hugo Sanchez. "But a win at the Camp Nou could be a shot in the arm for him and the players, who have also been heavily criticized."

Fabio Capello, who won two Liga titles as Real Madrid manager, knows all about this. "I was in Lopetegui's position [in 2006-07]," he recalls. "They told me I had to get a result in the Clasico or I'd be fired."

At the time, Real Madrid were fourth and had won just one of their previous five while being eliminated from the Champions League. "Well, we drew, 3-3, but we put on a show and we went on to win La Liga that season," Capello adds.

That's the key: It's not just about regional, or even global, bragging rights; it's about giving your season a hand-brake turn, and this arguably applies most of all to the players who have to fill the Cristiano- and Messi-shaped holes. (The latter's absence may be temporary this time, but he turns 32 in the summer. His clock is ticking as well, so consider this an audition for the future.)

Who will step up?

On the Real Madrid end, the top candidate might be Marco Asensio who, most weeks, takes up Ronaldo's position out wide. The young forward, who was named after the legendary Marco van Basten, isn't Pete Myers replacing Michael Jordan. He has the tools to be among the best in the world.

There's also Gareth Bale, the most expensive player in history until three years ago. He's been hampered by injuries and playing second-fiddle to Ronaldo, but as he showed in the 2017-18 Champions League final, he can take over a game like few others.

And, for the time being at least, it's Karim Benzema, the blue-collar grunt of a centre-forward who, for the past few years, sacrificed himself doing the dirty work in the trenches to help Ronaldo shine, a bit like the left tackle who protects Tom Brady. Unsung hero, sure, but also a non-scoring central striker who managed 18 league goals in the past two years. Many felt that with Ronaldo gone, Benzema would pick up the scoring burden. That hasn't happened.

Philippe Coutinho, acquired for $150 million last January from Liverpool, is the playmaker but because he and Messi sometimes gravitate into the same areas and because he's versatile and unselfish, he hasn't been the driving force his talent warrants.
With Lionel Messi injured, Philippe Coutinho could be the playmaking force for Barcelona in the Clasico.

At Barcelona, there are two players who were bought with the quarter-billion dollars raised by the shock forced sale of Neymar, the Brazilian superstar who plugged the gap the last time Messi missed a Clasico: Philippe Coutinho and Dembele.

Coutinho, acquired for $150 million last January from Liverpool, is the playmaker, but because he and Messi sometimes gravitate into the same areas and because he's versatile and unselfish, he hasn't been the driving force his talent warrants. Valverde is ready to hand him the keys to the team.

As for Dembele, who arrived as a raw 20-year-old with a $120 million price tag in the summer of 2017, his electric talents have shined only intermittently, like a faulty neon. Blame the injury that kept him out for half of last season, blame Valverde's conservatism, blame youth, but then, stop blaming. Dembele must rise to the challenge.

And let's not forget Arthur either, the under-the-radar midfielder who signed almost as an afterthought last summer but who has forced his way into the middle of the park and become one of Valverde's most consistent performers, in the patch once occupied by the legendary Xavi and Andres Iniesta. He's 22, and most of the world had no idea he even existed until a couple of months ago. Now the stage is his too.

These guys are standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, just as Messi and Ronaldo -- though they may have taken it to another level -- also were, at first, mere vassals to the keepers of the flame.

Diego Forlan, who witnessed the eternal struggle that is the Clasico as an interested third party during his years at Atletico Madrid, believes that the Clasico is -- and always will be -- bigger than any one or two players. "Cristiano and Messi helped make El Clasico grow to what it has become today, but someone always ends up emerging," he says. "One leaves, and as has always happened, another takes his place."

One king is gone, the other is broken. The crown is there for someone to seize.

ESPN Deportes, Mexico, Argentina and Brazil contributed to this story.


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