Ronaldo and Messi duel in El Clasico

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The Independent Online

Cristiano Ronaldo has never scored against Barcelona, so tonight would be a good time to start.

Having heard the universal acclaim bestowed on Lionel Messi this week, Ronaldo will get the chance to overshadow him and take Real Madrid a giant step closer to winning La Liga in a match that has had the whole of Spain holding its breath and the sport scientists working overtime.

Messi runs with the ball at his feet at a speed of 18 miles per hour according to the University of Coruña experts. That is almost as quick as Usain Bolt over the first 20 metres of a sprint. Ronaldo's free-kicks, meanwhile, travel at 75mph. Footnotes to a script for this El Clasico that will be written at 9pm BST at the Bernabeu and will largely decide who wins the league.

Both sides have played down the element of title-decider with the Barça coach, Pep Guardiola, arguing that his side could lose this one and still retain the title by winning their remaining seven games, but such is the gulf in class between the best and the rest it is hard to see tonight's victors slipping up again.

The big two have 77 points going into the match and both will be missing significant summer signings. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has not recovered from a calf problem to take his place for Barcelona and neither Karim Benzema nor Kaka have made it for Real.

Ibrahimovic did an excellent job of summing up his side's brilliance this week when in his near perfect English he said: "We don't just have one player who is wow, we have 25 players who is wow – that is why we are so special.''

That depth of "wowness" will be tested by the Swedish striker's injury. Bojan Krkic started in his place against Arsenal in the Champions League on Tuesday but was taken off in the second half and Thierry Henry, who scored twice in this fixture last season, remains a possible alternative.

Andres Iniesta is expected to start for Barça and Guardiola also welcomes back Gerard Pique who scored in the famous 6-2 humiliation of Real at the Bernabeu last May. For Real, the absence of Kaka will mean Rafa van der Vaart continues behind Ronaldo and Gonzalo Higuain.

"Everyone is talking about me and Messi,'' said Ronaldo, "but we don't play on our own. When I was at [Manchester] United I was the best in the world but I was not playing alone and it is the same for Messi at Barcelona.''

Both players, however, carry the weight of their two teams going into the game. Messi is currently scoring one goal every 87 minutes. Ronaldo shoots every 12 minutes but only finds the net every 102 minutes.

Then there is their form against tonight's respective rivals. Three times Ronaldo drew a blank for United against Barcelona and he failed to score in the Nou Camp earlier this season. Messi, in contrast has scored six times in seven meetings with Real.

Real have also been unlucky with the number ten – Messi's shirt – this season. They crashed out of the Spanish Cup on November 10 and out of the Champions League on February 10. Tonight they need their No 9 to make sure 10 April does not turn out the same way.

The rest of Europe is no two-horse race

There may be 21 points between the top two and third place in Spain but leagues in France, Germany and Italy are all much closer. Just three points separate the top five in France with sixth-placed Lille travelling to second placed Lyons tomorrow.

In Germany third-placed Bayer Leverkusen play leaders Bayern Munich tonight with just six points separating them and in Italy Internazionale face Fiorentina with just a three point gap between them and third-placed Milan.

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