Real Madrid vs. Barcelona: Big stars and key questions ahead of Clasico

One of the football's biggest matches returns as Real Madrid host Barcelona in the 250th competitive edition of the clash simply known as El Clasico this Sunday (Oct. 16, 10:15 a.m. ET, ESPN+).

Sunday's match sees both sides on top of the LaLiga table, with Barcelona just above Real Madrid due to goal difference. Barcelona snapped a six-game winless streak against their rivals in an emphatic 4-0 win last season, although Real Madrid would go on to win their record 35th LaLiga championship.

- Real Madrid vs. Barcelona on ESPN+ (Sunday, Oct. 16, 10:15 a.m. ET)

Following an offseason in which Barcelona spent nearly €150 million ($145.6 million) to bring in new players, the Catalan side has its sights set on a 27th league title. Meanwhile, Madrid are eyeing back-to-back crowns for the first time since the 2006-08 campaigns, not to mention extending their record Champions League haul to 15 trophies.

ESPN correspondents Sam Marsden and Alex Kirkland break down both sides and look at what to expect ahead of Sunday's match at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium.

JUMP TO: Seasons so far | Star strikers: Benzema or Lewa? | Battle of midfields | Better playmakers? | Injuries and depth? | Coaches' corner | Prediction

How has it gone so far for Real Madrid, Barcelona this season?

Kirkland: Madrid started the campaign as if it were a seamless continuation of last season's expectation-busting, double-winning campaign, with nine wins out of nine in all competitions. Their first and only slip-up to date came in a 1-1 home draw with Osasuna on Oct. 2, but they've bounced back since and also kept a first clean sheet of the LaLiga season in Saturday's 1-0 win at Getafe.

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Summer signing Aurelien Tchouameni has helped fans forget about the departure of Casemiro to Manchester United, while young stars Vinicius Junior, Rodrygo Goes and Federico Valverde are developing into this team's new generation of leaders, with the support of old hands Luka Modric and Karim Benzema.

Marsden: Barcelona are much improved from last season -- I mean, they should be after spending over €150 million -- but they still look like a team in development. Thumping wins have been contrasted with struggles to break down stubborn opponents, and they are on the cusp of another disappointing Champions League exit after poor results against Bayern Munich and Internazionale.

The squad is packed with quality, though, and with Robert Lewandowski at one end and Marc-Andre Ter Stegen at the other, they have been effective in both boxes. They are the top scorers (20) in LaLiga after eight games and also have the best defence, having conceded just one goal.

A trip to the Santiago Bernabeu will provide a better idea of whether they can compete for the title this season, as well as the chance to bounce back from Wednesday's draw with Inter.

Lewandowski or Benzema: Who is the best striker in LaLiga?

Marsden: Lewandowski's impact has been felt on and off the pitch. On it, he is the top scorer in LaLiga with nine goals in eight games, three more than anyone else. Off it, he is a leader. His professionalism, attitude and work rate are infectious. Xavi has praised the influence he has had on the younger members of the squad already.

He may be 34, but he is still a striker at the peak of his powers and his move to Barca has provided fresh motivation. He is likely to watch Benzema win the Ballon d'Or this year, a prize he feels he deserved during his time at Bayern Munich. He hopes the spotlight that falls on Barca will give him a better chance at individual glory; Barca hope that desire will propel them to success. -- Marsden

Kirkland: It's been a strange start to the season for Benzema. Just a few months ago, his goal-scoring heroics in Madrid's dramatic Champions League run were dispelling any remaining doubts that this was a player worthy of Ballon d'Or recognition. Now, an injury-disrupted spell -- including a month on the sidelines with a thigh problem -- means he hasn't scored since August.

Three LaLiga goals from five starts is a modest return, and Benzema's missed penalty against Osasuna saw Madrid lose their 100% record. Fortunately, Vinicius and Rodrygo have stepped into the breach. Benzema was rested at the weekend, and Tuesday's Champions League 1-1 draw against Shakhtar Donetsk gave him one last chance to find his form before the Clasico.

Modric's midfield mastery or young dynamos Gavi, Pedri?

Kirkland: Madrid's midfield, the bedrock of their success over the past decade, is finally undergoing a generational change.

The club made the smart decision to move on Casemiro, 30, for a significant fee, having already signed Tchouameni, 22, as his preemptive successor. Tchouameni has already shown in flashes that he can replace the Brazilian -- and even improve on his offensive output -- but is yet to be tested in a game of this magnitude. Toni Kroos, 32, remains hugely influential but is not a guaranteed starter.

It's the veteran Modric, 37, who refuses to be dislodged from Madrid's best XI. The best use of Eduardo Camavinga's talents has been as a impact substitute, while Valverde's consolidation on the right means the classic midfield three is now effectively a four-man set.

Marsden: Gavi and Pedri have established themselves as regulars for Barca and Spain at just 18 and 19, respectively. No one doubts their quality or their potential, but they now need to turn that into silverware to be put on par with their predecessors, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, and the Madrid midfielders they will face on Sunday.

The good news: they're both on the right path. With Sergio Busquets sat at the base of the midfield, Gavi pops up everywhere. He is so busy, in fact, that some people at the club believe he needs to slow down just a little bit to become even better.

As for Pedri, few have shown such a brilliant understanding of the game at such a young age. He has demonstrated he can control games; can he now control a Clasico?

Playmakers galore: Will Vinicius, Dembele, Valverde shine?

Marsden: Barca need their other attackers to score more to lessen the load on Lewandowski, whose brace against Inter could not salvage a win on Wednesday. On paper, their attacking depth in support of the Polish striker is incredible: Ousmane Dembele, Raphinha, Ansu Fati, Ferran Torres and Memphis Depay. So far this season, though, they have not delivered consistently enough.

Dembele has been the pick of the bunch, brilliant at times, but he still needs to improve his decision-making in the final third. He has four assists but only two goals. Xavi wants him to score more, though to be fair, the Barca coach wants everyone to score more.

After Lewandowski, only Dembele, Ansu and Pedri have scored more than once in league games this season. They each have two. That is not good enough after 11 games, especially compared with Madrid, who have four players with four or more goals.

Kirkland: The early highlight of Madrid's season has been the way Vinicius, Rodrygo and Valverde have helped forge a new identity for this team as a direct, dynamic counterattacking unit. Vinicius is the team's top scorer, with seven goals in all competitions, and Rodrygo and Valverde have both chipped in with four each.

The only dilemma coach Carlo Ancelotti will face against Barcelona is whether to start Valverde -- whose recent contribution has made him nearly undroppable -- or Rodrygo. The likely outcome is for the Brazilian to be held in reserve for later in the game, given the lack of convincing attacking alternatives with Marco Asensio and Eden Hazard out of form and favour.

Injury concerns cloud the Clasico: Who has better depth?

Kirkland: Madrid's Clasico buildup has been hit by injury doubts over the two players they can least afford to lose: Thibaut Courtois and Benzema. Courtois will be a last-minute decision as he recovers from a sciatic nerve problem, while Benzema is now expected to be available, albeit lacking match sharpness. If Courtois doesn't make it -- though indications are that his fitness is trending up -- Andriy Lunin's lack of big-game experience would be a major concern.

Elsewhere, Madrid's squad is strong, with Ancelotti choosing two of three elite centre-backs -- Eder Militao, David Alaba and Antonio Rudiger -- each week, and able to call on the likes of Camavinga and Rodrygo if a second-half energy boost is required.

Marsden: Barca's summer spending served the dual purpose of improving the starting lineup and adding depth. That depth has been pushed to the limit in defence, though, where a spate of injuries forced Xavi to field three left-backs against Celta Vigo, before a makeshift back three could not contain Inter..

The losses of Ronald Araujo (Uruguay) and Jules Kounde (France) while on international duty, perhaps Barca's best two defenders, has been a huge setback. Further injuries to Hector Bellerin and Andreas Christensen have even reopened the door for Gerard Pique to come back in from the cold.

Further forward, Frenkie de Jong, Franck Kessie and Memphis have all suffered knocks. De Jong and Kessie are back again, Memphis is not far away and there is an outside chance Kounde could face Madrid, but Barca will be weakened in defence at the Bernabeu.

Ancelotti vs. Xavi: Which coach will be more confident?

Marsden: Barca go into the game top of LaLiga, but sluggish 1-0 wins in their last two league games against Celta and Mallorca, coupled with injury problems, had already reduced the euphoria that was beginning to bubble before the recent international break.

The morale-sapping draw with Inter then further dented the mood around the club and Xavi takes his side to Madrid at perhaps the lowest moment of his time in charge of the club. While the buck could be passed for last season's Champions League exit, he will take huge responsibility if, as looks likely, it happens again this term. Despite that, he will find reasons for optimism. Barca won 4-0 in Madrid last season and recent history shows they often enjoy their trips to the capital.

Kirkland: You get the feeling Carlo Ancelotti is never anything but confident. Winning LaLiga and the Champions League was a surprise, a late-career highlight and vindication that the 63-year-old Italian can still deliver at the highest level. He also has shown that, assisted by a youthful staff including son Davide, he's capable of growth and innovation in what's likely his career swan song.

Ancelotti's Madrid side is versatile -- they can keep the ball, sit deep, press high or play on the counter -- and he'll want revenge for last season's 4-0 humbling at the Bernabeu, an eyebrow-raising result despite not ultimately meaning much. He'll have learnt lessons from that game; notably that the ill-advised gambit of playing Modric as an emergency false nine isn't one to be repeated.

Madrid have to open up a little more at home and, with Barca used to facing teams sitting deep, they can take advantage of any space afforded to them.

Prediction time: Madrid revenge? Barça run it back?

Kirkland: Neither team goes into this match in its best form, and I would expect a much tighter game than last season's 4-0. I can see Lewandowski scoring in his first Clasico, and Benzema finding his scoring boots again, in a 1-1 draw that sets us up nicely for the title race to come.

Marsden: Clasicos don't always follow the form book, so I wouldn't take too much from Barca's post-international break struggles. They will be keen to move on from the Inter result quickly, although it won't be easy against a solid Madrid side. With neither team desperate for the three points at this stage of the campaign, I will sit on the fence with an entertaining 2-2 draw.