Barcelona and Real Madrid are so evenly matched, writes Andy Mitten, that Spain's big game is impossible to call
Not only are Spanish sides Barcelona and Real Madrid giants of world football, but they are Europe's most in-form teams. In Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the world's best two players will be facing each other tonight, and so will two of football's most successful and charismatic coaches. Both cannot be victors, so which side has the edge?
Value for money
Real Madrid's team cost three times more than Barca's to assemble. Whereas Messi was a product of the youth system, Ronaldo cost a world record €94 million (Dh457m) when he signed from Manchester United in 2009. The players in Real's likely starting line-up cost €477.6m against the €156.8m of Barca - and much of that was lavished on David Villa and Daniel Alves.
The Catalans have their famed youth system to thank. World Cup-winning players like Xavi, Carles Puyol, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, goalkeeper Victor Valdes and Sergio Busquets did not cost a dirham.
Real's Iker Casillas, probably the planet's best goalkeeper, was a product of their cantera, but the rest of the Madrid stars were purchased, often at great expense.
If Casillas shades it over Valdes in goal, then Barca can claim to have the better defence. Alves, their attacking Brazilian right-back, is considered the finest in the world, though Real's Sergio Ramos was a World Cup winner.
Maxwell, another Brazilian, is set to start at left-back over Eric Abidal for Barca. If there is a slight chink in the champions' armour, then it is here. Real are also expected to use a Brazilian at left-back, the diminutive Marcelo who, at 22, is already being called the "new Roberto Carlos".
In central defence, Barca have the imperious pairing of Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, a partnership that has tasted victory from the Champions League to the World Cup.
Real have shown great consistency this season, with 10 players starting 10 or more of their 12 league games. They include the central defensive partnership of the ever-present Ricardo Carvalho and the Brazilian Pepe.
Real boast the stingiest defence in Spain with just six goals conceded to Barca's eight, but how many of their defenders would get into the Barca defence? Only Marcelo.
Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira have been starting as a defensive midfielders for Real in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Alonso's range of passing as good as when he enjoyed his best Liverpool form.
Barca will play their trusted 4-3-3, with Sergio Busquets the most defensive midfielder. He will be charged with breaking up the plays of Real's prodigious attackers.
In front of him will be Xavi and Iniesta, the finest duo of creative midfielders in football. Both were in Fifa's top five for the 2010 World Player of the Year.
Opinions are divided about who is better, but Iniesta is Barca's only ever present in the league so far this season and has three goals to his name.
The prospect of the players up front will have the 98,600 crowd salivating tonight, along with the expected 400 million global television audience.
Barca are likely to start with a front three of David Villa, Pedro and Messi. Villa has enjoyed a solid if not spectacular start to his Camp Nou career with six goals in 11 starts. Pedro has four in eight, while Messi has an astonishing 13 in 10.
Messi is the reigning World and European Player of the Year, as well as being the European golden boot holder. His greatest challenger this season is Ronaldo, who has scored 14 league goals in 12 starts so far.
Ronaldo will start behind an attack spearheaded by the Argentine Gonzalo Higuain, Real's top scorer last season who has seven goals from 12 starts this season.
Ronaldo will play alongside new signings Mesut Ozil and Angel Di Maria.
Both have settled immediately and provided key assists and goals at the Bernabeu, but neither has faced a test like tonight, a match against arguably the best club side ever in what will be the cauldron of Camp Nou.
The final intriguing clash is between the coaches. Guardiola and Jose Mourinho are both intense, relatively young, urbane, self-assured, handsome and sartorially perfect.
Guardiola is the purveyor of the attacking Barca philosophy instilled by Johann Cruyff when he was the Dutch legend's star pupil.
Mourinho thrives on attention and adversity. His reputation for defensive, negative football holds weight, but his high-scoring Real side are noted for their attacking zest and tight defence.
With home advantage, Barca are slight favourites, but it is almost impossible to call given the strength of both sides.
Midnight, Aljazeera Sport +3