Barcelona: the greatest team ever?

16 successive La Liga victories, a record, 61 points out of a potential 66 so far this season and a realistic opportunity to break both the goals scored and fewest conceded records. Leo Messi has scored 40 goals in 33 games and if anything, they are better than last season. Or the season before.

And let us remember that two years ago Barca won the treble. In fact, they won six trophies in all, though the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and World Club Cup are lesser rated. Still significant though. Last year, though just winning the league, they won it with 99 points.

Yet, still, they are even better this year. They have scored five or more goals on eight occassions, and rattled in eight past a hapless Almeria. Of course there was the 5-0 win over Real Madrid that some consider to be the best performance ever.

So the question. Is this Barcelona team the best ever? Statistically, they could be. Though they will not join Arsenal, Ajax and AC Milan, the three major European teams to have gone unbeaten through a whole season, they have ammassed more points than the trio. Arsenal did not win the European Cup unlike Ajax or Milan, whilst Ajax did so whilst going unbeaten through a weaker league and AC Milan took just 56 points, winning 22 games and drawing 12. Barcelona may have lost games last season and the year before, but they won a far greater proportion, and in a greater style.

Another contender for the crown of ‘greatest team ever’ were of course the Barcelona side under Johann Cruyff; the dream team. That team won four successive La Liga titles and the club’s first European Cup in 1992 under the tutelage of the Dutch great, who created a team who played with the style and quick passing movements of the Ajax side of the 1970s. Containing legends such as Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Romario, Michael Laudrup and Pep Guardiola, their play and class beguiled most teams who came before them. But even they were humbled 4-0 by AC Milan in the 1994 European Cup final.

That Ajax side are too, another contender for the title of best team ever. Winning three successive European Cups between 1971 and 1973, Ajax formed the basis of the Holland teams which came so close to winning the World Cup in 1974 and 1978. In 1974 the Dutch side came agonisingly close to success, going down 2-1 to Germany after taking the lead in the first minute and dominating throughout.

Though a team of equally majestic style, this Barcelona team similarly provide the basis of the Spain team which has won the European Championships and World Cup, currently holding both with equally impressive style. The fine margin between success and failure is what makes this Barcelona side arguably better than the Ajax team of the 1970s.

And so there is one other team that should be considered. The Real Madrid side of the late 1950s, which won five successive European Cups when the competition was inaugrated. The team of Alfredo di Stefano and Emiliano Butragueno dominated La Liga during this period, with style and brilliance reminiscent of the current Barcelona. Yet to make comparisons between the two seems difficult. Different achievements, different periods.

But this Barcelona side have something else. The world’s best player since Diego Maradona. In Lionel Messi, they have a man set to break the record for goals in a La Liga season (currently 38) and on course for 50 goals during this campaign. Behind him they have Xavi, a man who arguably edges out Zinedine Zidane as the great creative force of his generation, at least if medals are the measure. And then there is David Villa, possibly the best striker of the last decade, or Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol…in every position Barcelona have greats. And this links back to the point that is so important to make about Barcelona. This is a real team. A genuine team, not one carried above and to greatness by the brilliance of one individual, in the style of Maradona with Napoli and Argentina, or Cruyff with Ajax and Holland. Messi makes them better, but Messi is nothing without the team.

Even the most defensive and resolute of sides struggle to cope with this Barcelona team. Inter Milan played them four times last year, and could only beat them at home after the Spaniards had been forced to travel over 16 hours by coach. Even in the return game at Camp Nou, where Jose Mourinho was said to have defeated Barcelona tactically, all forgot that on the night, Barcelona had won the match 1-0. And that earlier in the season that same Inter side were beaten 2-0 away and drew 0-0 at home. In the four games between Inter’s treble winners and Barcelona, the Catalans won 4-3, and though Mourinho’s team took the biggest trophy, Guardiola’s side were probably the better team.

Sandro Rossell recently said “We have the best player in the world in the best team in the world.” Few could argue. This team are rewriting records by the week, their players are rewriting individual records. Not only is Messi scoring unprecedented numbers of goals, but Xavi is breaking passing records. Most of all, it is a team playing in a style and with a flair that demands appreciation. There is no criticism of Barcelona, no shame felt in being second best. Even Jose Mourinho did not make excuses in defeat to Guardiola’s side. For they are a team that even the worst of losers can accept coming second best against. Simply the best, ever? No one really knows, definitively. But, probably, yes.

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