MADRID, Dec 20 (Reuters) - With Lionel Messi out injured, Thierry Henry doubtful and Ronaldinho struggling for form, Barcelona are looking to Samuel Eto'o to inspire them to victory in Sunday's 'clasico' at home to arch-rivals Real Madrid.
The Cameroon international has made an impressive return to action after more than three months on the sidelines with a serious thigh injury, reinvigorating a team that has been treading water for much of the first half of the season.
He marked his reappearance with a goal in his second match back against Stuttgart in the Champions League a week ago and then scored two more to lead Barca to a 3-0 win over Valencia on Saturday.
But it is not just because of his effectiveness in front of goal that Eto'o's return is of such importance to the Catalans.
His relentless pressuring of opposition defenders, selfless running off the ball and infectious enthusiasm have had a revitalising effect on the whole side.
'Even though he has just come back from injury he is in great shape and he knows exactly how he should play,' said Barca coach Frank Rijkaard. 'The way he pressures really helps the team and he also adds that extra bit of class with his goals.'
An ex-Real Madrid player, Eto'o has a brilliant record against his former club, scoring seven goals against them while at Mallorca and another three since joining the Catalans.
Barca have a 100 percent record at the Nou Camp this season and have lost to their arch-rivals on home ground just twice in the last 24 years.
But Real have done well in Barcelona in recent years, losing just once in their last six visits and were only denied victory last season when Messi completed a virtuoso hat-trick with a last-gasp equaliser to level the game 3-3.
Real have retained the ultra-competitive edge they acquired under Fabio Capello last season and continue to demonstrate an unerring ability to convert chances into goals, even when they are not at their best.
Ruud van Nistelrooy, Raul and Robinho have been impressive up front and new coach Bernd Schuster has developed a balanced, flexible midfield and a more resilient defence.
Once an idol at the Nou Camp, Schuster will be keen to get one over his former club just as he did at Getafe last season when they knocked the Catalans out of the Copa del Rey.
More importantly, a win would give Real a handy seven-point advantage at the top of the table with just two games to go before the midway point of the season.