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Guillem Balague: "I'm convinced Lionel Messi will stay at Barcelona"

El Clasico, leo Messi
(Image credit: PA Images)

Se acabó - the sun has long since set one of El Clasico's truly great eras: the days of Messi and Ronaldo, of Pep and Jose, of a side for whom winning was everything and another who wanted to play the right way.

The Galacticos may have left the building, La Masia's production line slowed, but for Spanish football expert Guillem Balague, Barcelona vs Real Madrid still remains the greatest spectacle in football. 

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"It's like that old saying, but changed a little," he chuckles during a conversation with FFT ahead of Saturday's clash, the 245th in history. "If you're tired of El Clasico, then you're tired of life. Every time there is a new storyline; a new reason to watch."

Guillem Balague

(Image credit: LaLigaTV)

As usual, the LaLigaTV pundit and one of the most respected voices in the Spanish game, is bang on the mark. This season's Clasicos will be served, tapas style, with their traditional side dishes of drama, and it's the same familiar face at the centre of it all this time, too - though for different reasons than usual. 

Lionel Messi's attempts to leave Barcelona in the summer, following 22 years of service - and the suspicion he may still depart next year - mean this could be the Argentine's final Camp Nou El Clasico. Given everything that's happened between player and club, there's some concern the fixture's all time-leading scorer - just the 26 strikes so far - may not have his heart truly in it anymore.

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"No, this is El Clasico," states Balague matter-of-factly. "If you're not up for this game, you'll never be up for anything. Of course, it's very difficult for Messi right now. He arrived at Barcelona when he was 12, and to make the decision he did over the summer - convincing his family to move, with tears in his eyes and with great reluctance - only to be forced to stay; that's very, very hard."

Messi has made no secret of his dissatisfaction with the Barcelona hierarchy; years of wayward spending have yielded just one Champions League semi-final appearance since 2015. But with presidential elections just around the corner, Balague isn't so sure the farewell party is required just yet. 

Lionel Messi

(Image credit: PA)

"He's had to put what happened over the summer to the back of his mind," he says. "He will have time to decide about his future after the elections, but I am convinced that if they go the way Messi wants, with a new board and a clear project, he will stay. I am convinced he will stay."

The August arrival of coach Ronald Koeman, a former Barcelona talisman himself, appears to have further placated the forward for the time being. 

"Koeman went over to Messi's house after he was appointed and they spoke for a while," Balague reveals. "Messi was impressed by what his new manager had to say. Koeman has said it will take Messi a few months to get over everything that happened. He's got to shake it off now and focus."

Real Madrid are never too far from drama themselves, of course, and this season is no different. Zinedine Zidane's side failed to make a single permanent signing in the summer, despite losing several experienced squad members. Wednesday's 3-2 loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in Europe provided more evidence that Los Blancos are a shadow of the team that won four Champions League titles between 2014 and 2018.

(Image credit: PA Images)

"Zidane took the blame for the Shakhtar performance and it was his fault," states Balague. "When Sergio Ramos isn't playing, they seem to collapse defensively. Key players are out of form. The team needs structure. 

"Every successful side needs a few things: pace up front - without Vinicius Jr. they lack pace; a well organised attack - Real don't have it; energy in midfield - unless Casemiro and Valverde play together there isn't much of that either. And who puts those things in place? It has to be the manager."

With neither team looking anything close to their best right now, fans can at least look forward to an even match-up. A finely balanced rivalry has seen both clubs score exactly 288 goals in this fixture down the years. Calling Saturday's outcome isn't easy.

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"The Clasico has nothing to do with form, it is always a new day for both sides," says Balague. "Both teams are conscious of their limitations and have been taking fewer risks on the ball than they used to.

"Barcelona will try and impose themselves on this game and I'd say it should be theirs to win, but you never know with Real Madrid. Whoever can kill the opposition before they have a chance to build chances further up the pitch will win this match."

The sun may have set on the Clasico's latest golden era, but a number of exciting youngsters are giving fans high hopes for the future. Balague has been impressed with Barcelona's recent breakthrough talents, and not just winger Ansu Fati, a full Spain international and scorer of 12 goals for his club despite being only 17.

"Barcelona keep telling us that the future has arrived in the form of Ansu Fati," Balague tells FFT. "But there are more players emerging. Pedri is fantastic between the lines. Trincao is a tricky winger - he dribbles with speed and can produce something special - he's one to keep an eye on in future."

(Image credit: PA Images)

Both Fati and playmaker Pedri, also 17, scored in Barcelona's 5-1 Champions League victory over Ferencvaros on Wednesday night. With neither old enough to drive, they had to rely on lifts home after the final whistle. According to Balague, there is no doubt which Real player the pair will be competing with in Clasicos of the future. 

"We've only scratched the surface with Vinicius Jr.,” says Blagaue excitedly. "Barcelona wanted him too, you know. They were desperate, but Real were willing to pay more. If Vinicius develops more composure in front of goal, you've got a potential top star there.”

More than 650 million people are expected to tune-in to the biggest club game in world football on Saturday afternoon. It may not be the heavyweight clash of days gone by, but Balague expects an interesting match that fans will enjoy nonetheless. 

"Barcelona and Real Madrid are both in a period of recycling now - rediscovering what their squads are capable of and how they should play. There are a lot of questions," he says. "And these can only be answered one way: on the pitch."

El Clasico is live on LaLigaTV this Saturday at 3pm BST. Sign up to watch all of LaLiga all in one place on LaLigaTV from £5.99 per month: premiersports.com/subscribenow

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