Bale v Neymar
As La Liga prepares itself for El Clasico on Sunday, Sky Sports compares the big signings of last summer - Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Barcelona's Neymar. Who do you think is the better player?
By Adam Bate & Scott Penhaligon
Last Updated: 21/03/14 1:04pm
Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi has come to symbolise El Clasico. But when Real Madrid host Barcelona live on Sky Sports 1 HD on Sunday evening there will be another comparison to intrigue viewers.
Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in an £85million transfer in the summer, while Brazilian star Neymar left his homeland for Barcelona in a deal reputedly costing the Catalan club in excess of £70million.
Although Ronaldo and Messi remain the key men at their respective clubs, the new boys have made an impact.
Here we look at the contributions of this summer's expensive acquisitions and ask the obvious question - Who is the better player?
Both men have already hit double figures for the season as the goals have flowed for the new arrivals. Bale had to wait just 38 minutes to open his account for Real and although injury problems hampered his early time at the club, the Welshman's first Bernabeu hat-trick came in November as Valladolid were vanquished 4-0 in the Spanish capital. With further braces against Sevilla and Schalke as well as a vital goal against Juventus, the trademark heart salute has already been seen 14 times in Real Madrid colours.
After getting off the mark in the Super Cup against Atletico Madrid, Neymar had to wait until his sixth La Liga appearance in a Barcelona shirt before grabbing the opener against Valladolid in September. But the next goal was one to remember - in El Clasico itself in October's 2-1 win at Camp Nou. Since then there has been a hat-trick against Celtic, a brace against Villarreal and February's long-range crackerjack against Rayo Vallecano to take Neymar's tally in all competitions to 11 with all but the first of them coming in La Liga and the Champions League.
Although Bale made a goalscoring start to his career in the Spanish capital, there were early question marks about his ability to impose himself on games. No assists in his first six matches reflected this struggle to get involved. But a 7-3 thriller against Sevilla in which he grabbed two goals and two assists proved a turning point. Bale now has 11 La Liga assists - the most by any Real Madrid player - and added a further two in the Champions League against Schalke in midweek. Remarkably, he has now assisted in seven of his last 11 games for the club.
September was the month in which Neymar really started to show his worth to this Barcelona team. It not only saw his first La Liga goal but he also assisted a team-mate to score in all five of his appearances that month. In October, he set up Alexi Sanchez for the crucial second goal against Real in El Clasico and, more recently, he the threaded the ball through for Dani Alves to effectively end the Champions League hopes of Manchester City. Neymar now has 11 assists for Barcelona this season - more than Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.
Bale's dribbling was one of the key attributes that made him such an attractive proposition for Real Madrid in the summer with his forceful running catching the eye at Tottenham. The 24-year-old averaged 1.8 dribbles per appearances in last year's Premier League and has maintained that same rate in La Liga. With Ronaldo, Isco and Angel Di Maria all completing more dribbles, Bale might seem less spectacular amid his new companions but he remains a formidable foe when in full flow and is only getting better as he begins to hit peak fitness.
Neymar, meanwhile, has carried his unquestionable flair with him from Santos to Spain. The brilliant Brazilian ranks among the top three players in La Liga for dribbles per game. In the Champions League, his 11 completed dribbles against Celtic were the joint-most by any player this season's competition and more than anyone managed last year. A special talent, Neymar's 93 dribbles for Barcelona leave Bale trailing in his wake - and he's created more chances too.
"Now he doesn't have problems physically and he is improving his confidence, so he will be very important for us in the future." - Carlo Ancelotti
"He started a little bit slow with injuries and small problems. Afterwards, he's been under a lot of pressure. It's hard but I think he's now in a good way, he's integrated more in the team." - Cristiano Ronaldo
"He's working very hard for the team, even when defending. We're very happy with what he adds to the team. His partnership with Messi is doing well." - Tata Martino
"Things are going well with Neymar. He has adapted very quickly and has been received well in the dressing room. He's a great guy and is very humble." - Lionel Messi
Of the two La Liga newcomers, Bale has the greater number goals and assists in a productive debut campaign - and all this coming despite the Real Madrid man enduring a difficult pre-season. However, the underlying statistics for Neymar are particularly exciting with a high number of successful dribbles and chances created. Given that the Brazil international is more than two years younger than Bale, his potential is vast. Can they rival Messi and Ronaldo? Well, they're both very good already - but you sense Neymar is the one who could become truly great.