James Lawton: Forget the hype, Guardiola's Barça are still eclipsed by the true greats

Take at least one step back and it is hard not to believe that the Milan team of Arrigo Sacchi would have started firm favourites against Pep Guardiola's Barça

Friday 11 March 2011 01:00

Now the praise for Barcelona is getting ridiculous. It is on a flood tide, gushing into every corner of the game, lapping and foaming and submerging some of their most compelling rivals of the quite recent past.

The fawning frenzy has reached the point where you have to wonder whatever happened to the requirement – of history, this is, rather than the blather of the day – to at least attempt to step outside the moment.

When you do this you have to be more than a little shocked that even a judge as normally hard-headed as Graeme Souness has lined up in the chorus. "They are the best club team I have ever seen," declared the great Liverpool and Scotland midfielder after Barça's victory this week over an Arsenal side who sadly never began to produce anything of their best.

Souness is for various reasons not a man to pick out for an argument but the trouble here is that he did not merely say that Barcelona were sublimely gifted in many departments of the game, that they had wonderful skills and an ability to apply pressure that would commend itself to the average wolverine.

He said they were the best, the nonpareil of all club teams who had passed his gaze since he started watching the game. This was at least a step back from the assertion of Cesc Fabregas that Barça are the "best team in history", a verdict that kicked into touch the Real Madrid side who won the first five European Cup finals.

Souness was a mere seven years old when Real completed that first extraordinary run along the peaks of the European game, when players such as Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento, Jose Santamaria and Raymond Kopa produced such an exquisite combination of strength and beautiful coherence, scoring 18 goals against eight while establishing untouchable brilliance in those final games. He has no such defence, however, when relegating the Milan who 21 years ago were the last team to successfully defend the European title to the slipstream of today's Barcelona.

No one could question Souness's admiration for the performance that overwhelmed Arsenal at the Nou Camp this week but when we take at least one step back it is surely hard not to believe that the Milan team of Arrigo Sacchi would have started firm favourites against Pep Guardiola's Barça.

Indeed, an analysis of any depth would also give the Liverpool side with whom Souness won three European Cups in the company of Kenny Dalglish and Alan Hansen and, in the last one in 1984, Ian Rush, a better than fighting chance.

With the addition of the Welshman, of whom it is reasonable to believe that he would have buried the chance that Nicklas Bendtner squandered this week when in the last minutes he had the chance to put Arsenal through to the quarter-finals, that makes four great Liverpool players. Do Barça have more?

Lionel Messi is sublime, of course. Andres Iniesta and Xavi are midfielders of superb craft who walk into football history with their accomplish-ments at club and international level. But take away this trio and what do you have left? Players of skill and a fine understanding of the team concept, no doubt, but how many of them walk into a world XI?

Let's look at the Sacchi team that won in 1989 and 1990.

Sacchi had five great players, however you draw the definition: Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rikjaard and Marco van Basten pass every test, however forensic, and then there was Alessandro Costacurta, a defender of heart-breaking resolution who in 20 years won seven scudetti.

Four years after the supremacy of this team Fabio Capello brought another to thrash Johan Cruyff's Barcelona – arguably the most authoritative performance in a final since Di Stefano and his men eviscerated Eintracht Frankfurt at Hampden Park 34 years earlier.

We are talking about some indelible points of history, here, and however beguiling it may be, Guardiola's Barça's imprint is considerably less dramatic.

They played beautifully against Manchester United in Rome in 2009, but apart from the fact that their opponents were hardly the ghost of the team that had beaten Chelsea a year earlier, it was also true that Barça's presence in the final owed a huge debt to some appalling officiating in the Stamford Bridge semi-final.

Last year Jose Mourinho parked his Internazionale airbus and invited Barça to prove quite how great they were.

On Tuesday night they inflicted on Arsenal a statistical and artistic landslide. This made even the pulse rate of a man as knowing as Graeme Souness race – but where would he have been if Bendtner had taken his gift near the end of the night?

Somewhere less emphatic, you have to believe, about the identity of he best team he had ever seen.

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