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Spain Represented by Real Madrid and Barcelona

Few footballing rivalries are able to capture the imagination of the wider world quite as much as that of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Meetings between these two star-studded outfits make for compulsory viewing, even if the games themselves do not always live up to the pre-match billing.

Their next coming-together, which takes place at the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday night, promises to be quite a spectacle however. Aside from the incentive of getting one over their biggest rivals, both sides know that the three points at stake are of vital importance in their private battle for the Spanish league title. Tied on 77 points with the Catalans, the hosts go into the game as leaders on goal difference. And with only seven games remaining after this one, a three-point advantage at this late stage could well prove decisive.

Saturday’s duel also has a number of interesting sub-plots, not least the continuing battle for the coveted title of pichichi (top scorer) between current leader Lionel Messi and Gonzalo Higuain. And, as FIFA.com explains, the form of the many players on both sides who will be gracing the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ will also be closely assessed by a select band of national coaches.

Spain boss Vicente del Bosque will need to keep his wits about him as he attempts to monitor the ten players who habitually form part of his line-ups, not to mention four others who could yet squeeze into his 23-man squad for the world finals. Two of the most eagerly anticipated match-ups pit goalkeepers Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes against each other and midfield schemer Xavi against Xabi Alonso.

Known for their attacking prowess, Barça can also pride themselves on having the tightest defence in La Liga, having shipped only 19 goals in 30 games. One of the biggest reasons for that impressive record is the form of Valdes, who is on course for his third Zamora trophy, awarded to the goalkeeper conceding the fewest goals during the league season. Surprisingly, however, the Barcelona custodian has never been called up for international duty, with Casillas maintaining an iron grip on the No1 jersey.

“We’ve never had any reason to discard Casillas and (Pepe) Reina,” Del Bosque said recently, before giving the Barça shot-stopper a glimmer of hope. “Valdes is in with a chance of going to the World Cup as the third-choice keeper.”

Saturday’s clásico will also give the Spain coach an excellent opportunity to appraise his options in defence. Lining up for Barça will be their first-choice centre-half pairing of Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, while Raul Albiol will be slotting into central defence for Los Merengues, alongside full-backs Sergio Ramos and Alvaro Arbeloa.

Setting the tempo on both sides will be two mainstays of the national side in Xavi and Xabi Alonso. While the Barcelona linchpin is the more creative and attack-minded of the two and a deadly threat at set-pieces, his Blanco counterpart is a formidable defensive bulwark and distributor of the ball, with the ability to score spectacular goals from distance. (fifa)

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