Tournament of all-time great teams (cont.)
Barcelona '11 -- What would have happened had it not been for the volcanic eruption that forced Pep Guardiola's side to travel by bus to face Internazionale in the Champions League semifinal last year. Would they now be sitting on a hat trick of Champions Leagues? Two out of three, plus three straight La Liga titles, though, suggests the quality of a side that often seems to be playing a different game to everybody else.
Santos '62 -- How good was the great team of Pele, Pepe and Coutinho? So good that twice -- in Congo and the Biafran conflict -- wars stopped so both sides could watch tour matches. Its banner year came a little earlier, though, in 1962, winning the Paulista championship, the Taca de Brasil and the first of successive Libertadores titles.
Honved '54 -- When Gusztav Sebes was plotting his great Hungary national side following the nationalization of the game in 1949, he needed a club at which to gather the best players and train them together. He settled on Honved, until then a small suburban side, and added the likes of Zoltan Czior and Sandor Kocsis to a team that already included Ferenc Puskas and Jozsef Bozsik. The result was five league titles in seven years.
Manchester Utd '99 -- There are those who would argue the 1968 side was greater -- and of course measuring across eras when talent was less concentrated is difficult -- but the Treble won by the United of Peter Schmeichel, Jaap Stam, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs makes a compelling case, as does a record of five league titles in six years.
Here's how the games played out:
Barcelona 5, Santos 0 -- A chastening experience for Santos, played off the park from the opening minutes. Barcelona pressed in patches, and gambled on an early surge for which Santos seemed entirely unprepared, squandering possession on the few occasions it regained it. The forward surges of the two fullbacks, Dalmao and Calvet, usually such a source of threat, became a liability, leaving David Villa and Pedro in acres of room. Both struck in the first 20 minutes, Villa latching on to a Lionel Messi through-ball, and Xavi laying on the second for Pedro. Santos rallied to an extent as Barca's early storm blew out, but just before halftime Zito, nonplused by the strictness of the refereeing, collected a second yellow card for a clumsy foul on Andres Iniesta. From then on it was just a question of how many: Messi converted a penalty early in the second half, and late goals from Villa and Iniesta completed a comprehensive win
Honved 2, Manchester United 2 -- The Hungarians had a reputation for starting briskly, United for starting slowly, so it was little surprise when Honved took a third-minute lead, Ferenc Machos leading a counter and laying in Ferenc Puskas, who turned inside Jaap Stam before rattling a left-foot shot past Peter Schmeichel. With Joszef Bozsik more concerned with creating, Jozsef Banyai struggled to hold the midfield, and a rapid interchange between Paul Scholes and Dwight Yorke put Andy Cole clean through to level. Honved were ahead again before halftime, though, Zoltan Czibor's cross from the left finding Sandor Kocsis to head powerfully home. This United was a side that almost relished being behind, the comeback becoming its trademark, and with Roy Keane relishing the liberal refereeing it found an equalizer midway through the second half, Yorke stealing in front of Gyula Lorant to head in a David Beckham cross at the near post.
Santos 3, Honved 2 -- After the nightmare in Barcelona, things couldn't have begun much worse for Santos, Laszlo Budai finding space behind Calvet and pulling the ball back for Machos to rifle in the opener after eight minutes. But in an open, end-to-end game, it was a question of which side took its chances. Santos were the next to take one, Pele escaping Banyai to convert Pepe's clever through-ball. The home side had the lead just after halftime, Calvet crashing past the right back Imre Palicsko and unleashing a shot that Lajos Farago couldn't hold; Coutinho poked in the rebound. Bozsik, perhaps, had left his fullback exposed for that goal, but it was his raking diagonal that set Czibor in behind Dalmao midway through the half, his low cross being turned in by Puskas. Santos needed the win, though, and it showed the greater intent in the final minutes, getting its reward in the final seconds as a flurry of passes left Pele one-on-one against Lorant. A pause and a simple sideways pass, and Coutinho was through to blast home the winner.
Manchester United 1, Barcelona 2 -- The key battle lines were drawn up early: Barcelona had more of the ball, benefiting from the extra man in central midfield, despite Dwight Yorke's efforts to occupy Sergio Busquets, but when United broke and got the ball wide, it looked threatening. Every time Ryan Giggs ran at Dani Alves, or Dani Alves ran at Giggs, it seemed to create a chance. Sure enough, just after the half-hour, the Brazilian tore forward, exchanged passes with Villa and drove in a low cross that Pedro converted at the near post. A devastating second arrived just after halftime, Messi finding space in front of the United back four and laying in Villa for the second. This United team, its assistant manager Steve McClaren famously said, is never beaten, it just runs out of time, but this time the fightback produced only a late goal from the substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, jabbed in from close range after Gerard Pique had misjudged a Beckham cross.
Barcelona 2, Honved 0 -- With Machos, Honved's deep-lying center forward, occupying Busquets, Messi drifting into Banyai's zone and Czibor and Budai just making Dani Alves and Eric Abidal a little cautious about pushing on, Honved's natural 3-1-2-4 shape proved weirdly effective at restricting Barcelona, even if it did dominate possession. Had Kocsis not headed an early chance over perhaps Honved could have pulled off an unlikely win, but in the end weight of possession told. Xavi drew Banyai and released Messi to open the scoring midway through the second half, and when Iniesta's run wasn't picked up five minutes later, he ran on to another Xavi through-pass to make it 2-0.
Santos 2, Manchester United 2 -- The draw, perhaps, wasn't kind to United, facing two tough away ties and a home game against Barcelona. Its 4-4-2 was simply too open, and Pele was barely checked as he dropped off the front line of Santos's 4-2-4. United did take the lead, Yorke evading Zito and finding space between Lima and Mauro to lay in Cole on the half-hour, but Pele controlled the game, and smacked in the equalizer after Ronnie Johnsen had blocked Coutinho's initial effort. Needing the win, United left Giggs and Beckham higher and higher up the field, but conceded the vital goal with 10 minutes remaining. Roy Keane had taken advantage of the early sixties refereeing to put in some reducers on Pele, but Pele at last found room to lay in Dalmao, hurtling forward from fullback, to make it 2-1. Scholes headed a leveler from a Beckham corner within two minutes, but the winner never arrived.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England. Editor of The Blizzard.