James Lawton: Barça the best, Mr Wenger? They lack the edge of Milan '89 and the flair of Brazil '70

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It is a flaw that was not displayed by the Milan teams of Gullit, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Maldini and Baresi, whose sharpest of cutting edges brought home five European titles

Arsène Wenger was awash with adrenalin and relief and understandable pride after his team had come back from the dead to preserve his dream of one day conquering Europe.

But if you could forgive the Arsenal manager much in such exhilarating circumstances it did not include tampering with football history. For that, surely, was his offence when he claimed that Arsenal's late win had been achieved against the greatest team ever to play the game.

Extraordinarily good, often sublime and always fascinating to watch are assessments of Barcelona with which no one could argue – but the greatest in history?

The trouble is twofold. First, you cannot assess greatness until it has run its course. Secondly, in this case it just cannot be true – at least not at this point in the story of Barça.

If they do happen to survive Arsenal's resurrection in the first leg this week at the Emirates – as the odds suggest they probably will – they also have to sharply improve the competitive edge they displayed last season when their drive to repeat their Champions League win of 2009 foundered against the doomsday tactics of Jose Mourinho's 10-man Internazionale.

It also happened to be true that when they overwhelmed Manchester United in Rome a year earlier it was only after benefiting from some of the most dysfunctional refereeing ever seen at the highest level of the game in the semi-final second leg against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Another set of facts which invites a question mark against Wenger's grand assessment is that his "greatest team" has now twice played at the Emirates in 11 months. The aggregate scoreline is Arsenal 4, Barcelona 3, and if it is true that some unforgettable virtuosity was displayed both last March and this week by Barça, it is also right that their coach Pep Guardiola on both occasions left north London deeply frustrated.

It is a flaw that was not displayed by the Milan teams of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, when they combined beautiful football and the sharpest of cutting edges on their way to five European titles.

Nor by the Real Madrid of Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Francisco Gento when they monopolised the first five years of the great European tournament and Di Stefano was so masterful, so strong, so all-seeing that some good judges still swear that he, not Pele or Maradona and still less Lionel Messi, stands out as the most complete footballer they have ever seen.

Of course Messi is a wonder, a gem and at 23 he may well become a serial winner at the highest level. But perhaps Wenger should have remembered that Pele was 17 when he made a major contribution to the first of three World Cup wins – and that if Messi and his Spanish acolytes Andres Iniesta and Xavi are phenomenally driven midfield operators, they cannot be said to have shaken off the historical challenge of playmakers, and scorers, like Gerson of Brazil and Puskas of Hungary and Cruyff of Barcelona and the Netherlands.

According to the Elo all-time football ranking system – a hoarder of data that also analyses the achievements of chess masters – the greatest piece of sustained football brilliance was by the players of Hungary, who won the Olympic title in 1952 and were denied the 1954 World Cup by a West German team they had not merely beaten but eviscerated in a group game – and one which is also now widely believed to have been fuelled by illegal substances when they created one of the greatest shocks in the history of the game.

Hungary, of course, also beat England 6-3 in the mythic Match of the Century – a title also assigned to Sea Biscuit's triumph over War Admiral – on a damp afternoon at Wembley in 1953. They belittled English claims of a fluke when they repeated the punishment in the Nep Stadium in Budapest the following year, this time by 7-1.

The point about Hungary, though, was not just the brilliant flow of their game but also the fact that they had changed it in quite fundamental ways of movement and thinking. The football correspondent of The Times, Geoffrey Green, acknowledged this reality with superb phlegm, writing of a desperate Billy Wright, "He showed the urgency of a fire engine answering the call but unfortunately he was tearing in the wrong direction."

You might say that there were times when Messi induced such panic in Arsenal this week but the difference between him on this occasion, and other vital ones, not least in last summer's World Cup, and, say, Puskas, was that the vital killing strokes were missing.

Three years ago World Soccer magazine polled the football men they judged to be most able to supply historical perspective when it came to picking the best international teams. The result was a landslide for the 1970 Brazilians of Pele and Jairzinho, Rivelino and Carlos Alberto, Tostao and Gerson, who some believed was most influential of all.

The point is significant in the wake of Wenger's claim in that most contemporary critics would agree that in many ways Spain, the reigning champions of the world and Europe, are an extension of the meaning of Barcelona. Minus Messi, it is true, but still a team inseparable from the one that illuminates the Nou Camp.

So maybe it is instructive to compare the scale of Brazil's triumph in Mexico to the one of Spain in South Africa last summer. Brazil beat Czechoslovakia 4-1, England, the reigning world champions, 1-0, and Romania 3-2 in group play. They defeated Peru 4-2 in the quarter-finals, Uruguay 3-1 in the semis, and Italy – who had beaten West Germany 4-3 in a semi-final rival to Hungary's Match of the Century – 4-1. They played exquisite football and scored 19 goals.

Spain, a team of much beauty and character, no doubt, lost to Switzerland in their first game, and apart from a 2-0 win over Honduras, never scored more than one goal in a match. In all they scored eight goals. Mere statistics, you might say, and separated by 40 years of football and scientifically applied physical development. But has that changed the essence of football, has it enabled only the mediocre and, somehow, enfeebled those who are now described as the greatest of all time?

It is not logical to answer yes. Perhaps, in a calmer moment, even the great Arsène Wenger might just agree.





Four more classic Emirates encounters

Arsenal 2 – 1 Man Utd

Sunday 21 January 2007

Wayne Rooney's header had put Manchester United ahead early in the second half before two late goals won Arsenal the game. First Robin van Persie evaded Gary Neville to score with seven minutes left, then Thierry Henry got the winner in stoppage time, heading in Emmanuel Eboué's cross.

Arsenal 4 – 4 Tottenham

Wednesday 29 October 2008

Arsenal conspired to draw this north London derby despite leading 4-2 with one minute of normal time remaining. Spurs took the lead through David Bentley's 40-yard volley but Arsenal looked to have won the game. Jermaine Jenas made it 4-3 before Aaron Lennon tapped in an equaliser.

Arsenal 2 – 2 Barcelona

Wednesday 31 March 2010

European champions Barcelona dominated the first half and went 2-0 up soon after the break, both goals scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But the introduction of Theo Walcott turned the game. He scored within minutes of coming on before Cesc Fabregas's late penalty levelled the quarter-final.

Arsenal 2 – 3 Tottenham

Saturday 20 November 2010

Tottenham's first win at Arsenal in 17 years came despite the hosts taking a 2-0 lead. Samir Nasri and Marouane Chamakh put the home side ahead, before Spurs fought back to 2-2. Younes Kaboul headed in with five minutes left to cap a memorable fightback.

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