Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Lionel Messi's 'El Clasico' return?

    Story highlights

    • Barcelona and Real Madrid clash in Saturday's El Clasico
    • Lionel Messi set for return to action
    • Neymar and Luis Suarez prolific in Messi's two-month absence
    • Cristiano Ronaldo hoping for return to form

    (CNN)November 21.

    The date has been etched into the calendars of millions of football fans around the world ever since Lionel Messi was ruled out for eight weeks, following a knee ligament injury suffered in a 2-1 win over Las Palmas at the end of September.
      Would Barcelona's star player be fit in time for this weekend's "El Clasico" clash with Real Madrid and, more importantly, how would the Catalans fare during his two-month absence?
      Quite well, it would turn out.
      In the eight weeks since Messi's injury, the other two spikes of Barca's famed "El Tridente" have more than stepped up to fill the sizable void left by the four-time World Player of the Year.
      Brazilian star Neymar has scored eight goals in five La Liga games during Messi's absence, averaging a goal every 56 minutes -- as well as notching three assists -- while the prolific Uruguayan Luis Suarez has registered six goals and two assists.
      And the pair may have to continue leading the line without the Argentine, after coach Luis Enrique could not confirm Messi would be fit enough to play a part.
      "We know he won't be 100%," Enrique said in his press conference Friday. "Whether he plays or not, the great news is that he is fit again."
      "I don't have things planned yet. I will speak with Leo today and again tomorrow. An hour before the game, things will be decided.
      "You can see things, but it is the player who can tell you how he is feeling, how confident he is. Leo is excited about his comeback."
      In his absence, Neymar, in particular, has been lavished with the kind of praise usually reserved for Messi.
      "He's electric," Enrique said of Neymar. ""When he runs into the area, either they commit a penalty or he scores."
      And it is not just his own manager lauding the 23-year-old's performances.
      Villarreal coach Marcelino admitted he would have applauded Neymar's second goal during his team's 3-0 defeat in the last round of La Liga fixtures had he not been on the receiving end of it.
      "He is probably the most in-form attacker in the league, decisive in front of goal and also in their play," he said.
      So incredible has the duo's form been -- they have scored all of Barcelona's last 17 La Liga goals -- that fans of the Catalan club don't want Messi in the starting XI for "El Clasico."
      In a poll run by Spanish newspaper "Sport," 79% of 3,600 fans asked would rather Messi started on the bench -- presumably to protect their idol from aggravating his knee injury.
      Barcelona goes into the match sitting top of the table, three points clear of its archrival, with Real in something of a rut ahead of Rafa Benitez's first "El Clasico."
      Los Blancos has won just three of its last six league games, including a 3-2 defeat last time out against Sevilla, while Barca has won five of its previous six and is on a four-game winning streak.
      However, Barca is not alone in its talisman troubles heading into the world's biggest club match.
      Cristiano Ronaldo, Real's record goal-scorer with 326 goals, has suffered a relative slump in form of late.
      Although it seems ridiculous to say that a player who has five goals in his last eight league games is going through a bad patch, the Portuguese superstar is falling short of his own stellar standards.
      After failing to score in Real's opening two league matches, Ronaldo hit eight goals in the following two games, including five in a 6-0 victory over Espanyol.
      Since then, talk has centered on Ronaldo's downturn and whether, at the age of 30, "CR7" is in terminal decline.
      So much so, that the idea of Neymar now being one of the two best players in the world -- at Ronaldo's expense -- is gaining credibility.
      "Neymar is so good that, when Messi stops, he will be his replacement," Barcelona legend Xavi said earlier this year. "He will be the best player in the world, I have no doubt."
      Hristo Stoichkov, the former Barcelona forward and 1994 Ballon d'Or winner, went one step further by declaring Ronaldo should not even make the podium for this year's individual honors award.
      "Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez is how the Ballon d'Or podium should look in January," Stoichkov said.
      During Saturday's match at Real's Santiago Bernabeu stadium, on perhaps the biggest stage in world football, can Ronaldo to prove his doubters wrong?
      Meanwhile, in the wake of last Friday's terror attacks in Paris, security will be ramped up on the day of one of the world's most anticipated matches.
      At least 1,000 police and 1,400 private security -- hired by Real -- are set to be deployed, double the amount for a normal "high risk" game, it was confirmed Wednesday.