Can the current Barcelona team really be considered the greatest of all-time?
Cesc Fabregas was overwhelmed with adrenalin and pride last Wednesday night. Having come back from a goal down to win 2-1 against the travelling Catalans; Arsenal's dream of conquering Europe is still on.
You could forgive the Arsenal captain of most things in such exhilarating circumstances, but that, surely, does not include tampering with football history. For that was the young Spaniards crime when he pronounced that Arsenal's late victory had been achieved against the greatest side ever to play the game.
Extraordinarily good, often sublime, always fascinating to watch are all assessments of Barcelona of which no one could argue. But the greatest in history?
The trouble with Fabregas's statement is twofold. Firstly, you cannot assess greatness until it has run its course. And secondly, it just cannot be true, at least not just yet in the current Barca story.
The 'greatest team' have now played at the Emirates twice over a period of 11 months, with the aggregate score: Arsenal 4-3 Barcelona. Of course, the away-leg at Camp Nou last year was a wonderful individual display which left Arsenal shaking their heads in awe. But it is also true that twice now, Pep Guardiola has been to north London, and both times left deeply frustrated.
Arsenal may claim to have beaten Barca "at their own game", but many seem to forget last year's Champions League semi-final first-leg, in which Inter Milan utterly dominated, eventually winning 3-1. Three first half goals from Maicon, Sneijder and Milito paved the way for the now infamous second-leg. That defensive stroke of genius from Mourinho meant Barca - who had over 75% possession - were completely shut out at home. And lest we forget, Inter played over an hour with ten men in that game, thanks to Sergio Busquet's theatrics.
That semi-final loss meant that Barca could not defend the Champions League trophy they had won a year earlier. A trophy that only came about because of one of the worst refereeing performances in living memory. Tom Henning Ovrebo is no longer an UEFA-standard referee: no one can be surprised.
Lack of patience and defensive frailties were not flaws that you could pin-point at Arrigo Sacchi's '89 Milan side. Boasting a team outrageously full of talent, this rossoneri side won the European Cup twice in a row in '89 and '90, and also reached three of the next four European Cup finals. When you have Marco van Basten, Ruud Guillit and Frank Rijkaard in attack, it's easy to understand how they did it. But perhaps even more remarkable were their league performances during the same time. In the 1988-89 season, Milan lost only one game all season, letting in a total of 12 goals. And two seasons later, they would go on a frankly remarkable 58 game winning streak - remember that Serie A at the time was by far and away the best league in the world.
Other great European sides that also need to be considered are: the Bayern Munich side of the mid-70's who won the Big-eared Trophy for three consecutive years in '74, '75, '76. That side included the great Franz Beckenbauer, bombarding wing-back Paul Breitner and goalscoring behemoth Gerd Muller, who in one European Cup year scored nine goals in six games, and also scored in all three finals. Ajax Amsterdam of the three previous years also have to be in contention for the title of 'greatest team of all time.' Like Bayern, they also won three consecutive European Cups, this time in '71, '72, '73. Pioneers of the pass-and-move style Barcelona currently deploy, this Dutch side created the template for 'Total Football', something which mesmerised the footballing world for three perfect years. And with Johann Cruyff as its focal point, they had the perfect player, for the perfect team at the perfect time.
If we are to talk about European glory as a parameter for greatness then we can't go any further without mentioning the Real Madrid side of the late-50's. Five European Cups in a row is still, to this day, unfathomable. Wins over Stade Reims (twice), Fiorentina, AC Milan and most famously Eintracht Frankfurt helped Real Madrid monopolise the trophy for the first five years of its existence. If every great team had one great player, it doesn't come much better than Alfredo di Stefano. The lynchpin of that Los Blancos side, he scored in all five finals he played and is one of only two players to score a hat-trick in a European Cup final. (The other being Ferenc Puskas, who incidentally scored his in the same game: the 7-3 win over Frankfurt.)
Puskas, as good as he was at Real Madrid, was even better for his national side Hungary. Admittedly, international football is a lot different to club football, but we can't go through the greatest club sides in history without mentioning some the best international teams as well. And that Hungary side, of which Puskas was the key component was some side. According to the ELO all-time football ranking system they are the greatest international team ever. Unbeaten for more than four years between 1950-1954, they were only denied their name in the annuls of history by a World Cup final defeat in 1954; a 3-2 loss to a West Germany team now believed to have been fuelled by illegal substances. Of course, on these shores, they will be remebered for their 6-3 victory over England, the first time a 'foreign' side had beaten the English on the hallowed Wembley turf. 'The Match of the Century' was then followed by a 7-1 thumping in Budapest six months later, just to prove it was no fluke. It would be no exaggeration to say that The Mighty Magyars quite literally invented the modern game. Technicolour football in a black-and-white world.
Three years ago, World Soccer Magazine asked the same question as I am now. They polled a number of football men far more qualified than myself, and the concluding result was a landslide. The best side ever were the Brazil team of 1970. Pele, Jarzinho, Revelino and Carlos Alberto were the samba stars who showed the world how to play. That Mexico '70 was the first World Cup to be televised worldwide and in colour may have helped. But the fact remains that their 4-1 win over Italy in the final is the best final performance ever, and includes the greatest World Cup goal ever.
So seriously Mr Fabregas. Well done on your win and all that, but just think the next time you tell the world that Barcelona 2011 are the greatest team ever.