Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Greatest Ever European Club Side

Several loyal followers - for whom this blog is most grateful - have requested an article on who would be the greatest ever European Club side of all time. The prompting for the debate has clearly been the current excellence of the current Barcelona team which has been enthralling football fans across Europe for the last couple of years with football that has as much substance as it does style.

It's a debate which has no right nor wrong answer as it is mainly subjective. It is also very difficult to compare teams from different eras, especially without having much real experience of watching these teams prior to the early eighties. One other factor is during this debate, this blog will put a weighting bias on European Cup or Champions League success with even a distinction drawn there as it is an entirely different competition from what it was prior to the nineties.

To try to make the debate more concise, we will start by establishing a list of potential candidates from what is going to be a very select group. When we are picking the side, it does not just refer to the team but which incarnation of it, what we are looking for is a sustained period of domestic and continental success. The lines between 'teams' and periods however will obviously be blurred and open to individual interpretation.

The first one up will be the Real Madrid team of the mid to late fifties who set the ball rolling. The next contender will be the Ajax team of the early seventies which was supplanted by the third team on the list, Bayern Munchen of the mid seventies.

After that came a period of English dominance which was led by Liverpool, this blog however will split that great team into two so for clarification we are looking more at the team of post Hughes, Smith and Keegan and focusing on the Dalglish, Souness, Hansen team which incidentally spent two years behind the Nottingham Forest of Brian Clough who marvelous side that they were, will not make this list.

The next one the list is the fabulous Dutch inspired AC Milan team that enjoyed such a glorious period in the  late eighties and early nineties.The final name on the list is the current Barcelona team.

Where this list is so hard and the criteria is so subjective is in terms that whilst teams can be pretty on the eye, true success is measured in silverware - just ask any Arsenal fan right now. There will unquestionably be ManYoo fans asking how on earth their trophy laden team of the late nineties and early turn of the century did not make the list, a team of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham, Keane - and Andy Cole - who swept all before them domestically and won the European Cup so thrillingly in the Nou Camp, the problem is they underachieved in Europe during that period and only won the trophy or even came close to winning it once. The team that won again in Moscow was a very different one.

Real Madrid fans will ask how their team could win the European Cup three times between 1998 and 2002 and not be included on the list and again, they would have a valid point. For some reason however a team that at different stages included Raul, Luis Figo, Roberto Carlos and Zidane and then later on Ronaldo (the real one) and enjoyed such great success somehow left people flat, maybe the collecting of the great players like wall hanging trophies somehow stuck in the throat, it was a team that was bought, not built although they would argue AC Milan did much the same in the eighties.

The mid nineties saw a fabulous Juventus team of Vialli and Baggio that won one Champions League and lost the next two finals but again somehow failed to spark the imagination. One team that did inspire and was a particular favourite of this blog was the Ajax side of the same period that went on to feed so many teams around Europe for years to come, a side that included Van Der Sar, Reizeger, the De Boer twins, Seedorf, Davids, Overmars, Litmanen, Kanu and a young Patrick Kluivert, quite an incredible collection. Neither team however had enough sustained European success to make the final cut. These teams added to that wonderful Nottingham Forest side mentioned earlier make up the list of honourable mentions although others will feel many have been harshly missed out.

So to the final list. The Real Madrid team of the fifties was undoubtedly a very fine side with Di Stefano and Puskas the stand out names that everyone recalls. Five European Cups on the spin coupled with domestic success also should put this team to the forefront of the debate. It is hard however as mentioned to compare eras and there has to be a suspicion that the level of competition they faced at European level in those days was not of the same calibre.

Both the Ajax and Bayern Munchen teams of the seventies enjoyed wonderful returns of silverware. Both won the European Cup three times in a row and enjoyed success on the domestic front also. Ajax boasted the sublime talents of the likes of Rudi Kroll and one of the all time greats in Johan Cruyff with Rinus Michels at the helm.

Bayern Munchen were no lesser of a team with the peerless Franz Beckenbauer marshaling the team at the back and Gerd Muller banging in the goals at the front. Both these teams contributed hugely in terms of players to their national teams with Holland enduring the heartbreak of back to back World Cup Final losses in '74 and '78, being pipped by West Germany in the former.

Next we move on to the great Liverpool team of the seventies and eighties and one which I had the personal pleasure of seeing once at Pittodrie in the European Cup. It was a team that was maybe not as aesthetically pleasing as some of the great sides but it was nothing if not effective and ruthlessly efficient. There was talent throughout the team from Clemence in goal to the elegant Hansen, the steel and quality of Souness and the brilliance of Dalglish upfront - amazing that three of these stand out players were Scottish. European and domestic success followed at time when true European competition and strength in depth had really begun to grip the continent. It was a phenomenal period of success especially when you consider that the European Cup was a true non seeded knock out competition still. Liverpool although banned from Europe after 1984 continued their domestic dominance for many years adding the likes of Barnes, Beardsley and Whelan before the break up of the side in the nineties.

The Heysel tragedy brought the period of English pre-eminence to an end and the Italian clubs which had already begun an upswing - the likes of Juventus buying players like Michel Platini and Zbigniew Boniek - took over at the helm of European football. For that reason many may feel that the feats of AC Milan winning back to back European Cups in the late eighties (the last time the Cup was successfully defended) are tainted slightly. What cannot be doubted however is the sheer quality of the team that Arrigo Sacchi built and then Fabio Cappello took on. The team had an incredible list of players and none more so than Franco Baresi, twenty years as a player with fifteen as captain. If ever there was a footballing centre back to rival Beckenbauer then it was him. He was joined in defence by a young Paolo Maldini who would go on to be a Milan marvel also and the no less impressive Alessandro Costacurta. This defensive wall formed the base for a team that was then crowned by the Dutch triumvirate of Rijkaard, Gullitt and Van Basten. It was an irresistible team that combined Italian efficiency and defensive soundness with breathtaking attacking prowess. Domestic success followed also with titles in '88, '92, '93 and '94 at a time when Serie A was highly competitive. Pierre Papin, Savicevic and Boban were then added in 1992 to an already glittering array of talent, it had no peer at that stage. This great side's grande finale came in the Champions League final of 1994 when they systematically dismantled the much vaunted Barcelona 'dream team' of Koeman, Guardiola, Stoichkov and Romario amongst others in a savage 4-0 thrashing.

The last of the sides in contention is the current incarnation of the Barcelona team and what a fine side it is. The midfield mastery of Xavi and Iniesta, both so effortless on the eye and backed up by Busquets with the ever reliable Puyol marshalling the defence behind them. Alves at right back is in the Cafu mould and further forward there is the pure sorcery of Lionel Messi whom, if he can put a World Cup win in his locker with performances to match can join the elite list that is Pele and Maradona. Goals come from everywhere but David Villa is as formidable a striker as there can be found in World football today. This is the team that is currently being lauded as the greatest ever. There are arguements both for and against.

The team plays football in an almost unique way that maybe only the great Ajax sides could match for purity. They are no slouches either when it comes to the dark arts, surrounding referees in turn, falling on the ball to claim free kicks but these do not make them a lesser team, quite the reverse, they make it more complete. They have also contributed heavily to the phenomonal success of the Spanish national side and the style of play that the national side currently employs would not be possible were it not for the way that the current Barcelona team plays. Many will also point to the current number of players that came through the youth system and the breathtaking 5-0 win over a Jose Mourinho coached Real Madrid team that was a footballing masterpiece.

On the flip side there are several factors that go against Barca. The first is the reality of their youth system is a club that had to take out a 150 million euro loan last season to pay their players. Barcelona have never been shy to spend money and in that regard they are no different to anybody else. Defensively they cannot claim to be in the same class as either of the great AC Milan and Liverpool sides. It is true that they need to care little however as they usually have the ball and Europe lacks another outstanding team right now to really stretch them at the back. Inter last season however did prove that even if they rode their luck to a large degree, Barcelona has no plan B - granted they don't usually need one - and they do seem predisposed as do many pure footballing teams to walking the ball into the net. This blog would add however that we are being extremely picky here, they are a wonderful side. Possibly the biggest factor going against the current Barcelona team is that they are just that - 'current'. It will only be possible to judge this side in another 3-5 years time when they do or do not have another couple of European Cups in their cabinet, right now this incarnation only has one (the 2006 win is not being included under this current team as only Puyol and Valdes of the current squad started the final with Xavi and Iniesta on the bench).

And so to the conclusion, the winner as far as this blog is concerned is the AC Milan team of the late 80s and early 90s with the great Liverpool team a close runner up. The Milan team of that period was the most complete with an iron clad defence, a fantastic midfield and no shortage of flair upfront. The great Liverpool team was more machine like, relentless in the way it simply bulldozed teams for year upon year but was also an exceptional team. This current great Barcelona team has the capacity to move to the top of this list but to do so it needs a couple more Champions League trophies in the cabinet - No Nonsense