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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
News
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
news
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower