Football is famously a ‘game of opinions’. Statistics and numbers can only tell you so much, but there are some arguments which will never be settled on facts alone. After yet another Barcelona master class against Manchester United at Wembley, we have to ask ourselves, should Pep Guardiola’s side be considered the greatest we have ever seen?
Sir Alex Ferguson must rue the fact that his United side have peaked in the same era as the Catalans. There is no doubt Ferguson has mastered Europe and overcome the tactical difficulties his side once faced during the 90s and early in the decade- the semi final defeats against Dortmund in 97 and Leverkusen in 2002 is testament to that. Yet despite 3 final appearances in the last 4 seasons, they only have one European cup to show for it- won on the occasion they did not have to play Barcelona in the final.
Barca’s quality is hard to judge on statistics alone, especially in comparison to other legendary sides from different generations. but their third European Cup in six seasons means they should now rightly be considered as a dynasty in the modern era. Those at the Bernabeu should certainly be worried as their fierce rivals threaten to overhaul their total of 9 European Cups in the not-too-distant future.
The much lauded quality of their football has always been breathtaking but astonishingly, they certainly seem to have played even better this season. If embarrassing the most expensively assembled football team in history in the first El Clasico of the season wasn’t enough for the Spanish Champions, they followed it up by knocking Real out of the Champions League Semi Final, outclassing their opponents home and away.
The theatrics and foul play from both teams in the first leg left a bitter taste in the mouth and threatened to tarnish the brilliance of Lionel Messi, Iniesta and Xavi, but there can be no doubting that the better team went through over two legs. Messi’s mesmerising solo goal at the Bernabeu, reminiscent of Thierry Henry in 2006, will certainly live long in the memory.
The historical myth of Barcelona being fantastic going forward, but susceptible at the back is exactly that: a myth. It is no secret that Barcelona are one of the best teams in the world going forward. Nearly every single player from the defence to the attackers possesses unrivalled vision, superb touch, telepathic passing and movement. But an underrated part of their game is the way in which Guardiola demands his team to win back the ball once they have lost it. They hunt in packs and nearly always immediately regain possession before continuing to attack.
There is a unwritten rule ingrained into the philosophy which requires the players to win the ball back within 5 seconds. Passing and probing of the highest order, forcing their opponents into total submission. Just ask Ferguson, Rooney and co. They simply work harder than people give them credit for and have a unique system which is so easy on the eye, yet devastatingly effective. Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol form a formidable partnership at the heart of defence- a partnership which is renewed at international level and helped to win the World Cup at South Africa, conceding no goals in the knock out stages. Leaky defence? Not particularly.
If we are judging how good a team is based on the recent trophies they have won, then Barcelona’s CV is untouchable. The season before last, they had to ‘just’ settle for the La Liga title and the Spanish Super Cup after the blockade of Mourinho’s Inter in the Champions League. However three seasons ago, with the exception of the newly signed David Villa, virtually the same Barcelona squad won everything there was to win. A domestic treble and the Champions League were quickly followed by the FIFA World Club Championship and the European Super Cup. A Manchester United side which had just won the Premier League and contained a strikeforce of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov were memorably dominated from start til finish in the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. It highlighted an embarrassing gulf in class between the two top teams of the so-called two best domestic leagues in the World.
The peerless Andres Iniesta and Xavi were majestic throughout in monopolising possession and they produced a midfield masterclass to prevent Utd from creating any chances. The 2-0 scoreline flattered United, as a certain Argentinean ran riot and had the freedom of the pitch, eventually scoring the decisive second. To rightly assume the mantle of the greatest team of all time, it is only right that the team contains a few half decent players and Lionel Messi certainly isn’t too bad right now.
The reigning World Player of the year continues to score goals at an alarming rate, 53 goals in 55 appearances this term and 47 in 53 last season. That works out at an incredible goal every 75 minutes and 23 seconds for Barcelona since the turn of the year. The little magician is undoubtedly the best player on the planet at the present time. Indeed, this year’s final shortlist for the newly merged FIFA Ballon d’Or award was none other than the irrepressible triumvirate of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. All three have been at the club since the age of thirteen, and according to coaches and football journalists around the World; they are the three best players in the World. It is a personal coup for the fantastic youth system Barcelona has in place at La Masia and it is certainly an ominous sign for the rest when Barca have home-produced the 3 best players in the world.
Adding another feather to their brimming cap, Barcelona can also claim that they made a massive contribution to Spain winning their first ever World Cup last summer. Out of the starting eleven in the World Cup final, 7 were Barca players and every single one of Spain’s goals throughout the knock out stages including the final were scored by a Barcelona player. West Ham United fans occasionally take glee in reminding opposition fans that they won the Jules Rimet trophy singlehandedly in 66, but you could forgive Barca fans if they ever decided to make a similiar point.
Is this Barcelona team the best ever? Early pioneers of passing football such the Hungarian national team in the fifties, Real Madrid in the sixties, Ajax in the seventies and Brazil 1970 might all have something to say about that. But pound for pound, this Barca team are certainly up there. Add the current best player in the World (by some distance) to a team of players which has just conquered the World at club and international level, and you’re looking at FC. Barcelona.