Tourney of greatest club teams
An imaginary tournament of 16 of the greatest club teams of all-time
Each club was only allowed one entrant with teams drawn into four groups
Clubs designated as home teams play under the rules of its own era
Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a four-part imaginary tournament between 16 of the all-time greatest club teams in soccer history. You can find Part 2 here.
THE IDEA: Is the present Barcelona side the best team ever? The debate feels futile: this side was great going forward; this side was great at the back; this side had so many great individuals it was impossible to stop them scoring; this side was so good defensively it could stop anybody from scoring. So let's add a structure; let's design a tournament in which the best sides can compete against each other, analyzing virtual games between the best teams there have ever been. It's guesswork, of course, but at least it's educated guess work.
THE FORMAT: It was decided to admit only post-World War II clubs sides, and that each club was permitted only one entrant. This is partly because these are the sides for which information is most readily available, and partly to try to prevent any one player appearing for two different teams. To an extent the 16 is arbitrary -- certainly Millinarios '49, Benfica '62 and Boca Juniors '78 can feel a little unfortunate to have missed out, and there are those who would argue for, say, Liverpool '77 over Liverpool '84.
THE RULES: The teams were randomly drawn into four groups, each team playing each of the others once, the top two from each group to qualify for quarterfinals. The games are arranged AvB, CvD; BvC, DvA; AvC, BvD; the first named team is the "home" side and plays not merely in its own stadium but under the rules of its era. Groups as follows:
GROUP A -- River Plate '42, Ajax '72, Flamengo '81, AC Milan '89
GROUP B -- Barcelona '11, Santos '62, Honved '54, Manchester Utd '99
GROUP C -- Penarol '61, Independiente '74, Dynamo Kyiv '86, Bayern '74
GROUP D -- Inter '65, Real Madrid '60, Estudiantes '68, Liverpool '84
River Plate '42 -- Renato Cesarini's fabled la Maquina side won only two league titles between 1941 and 1945, becoming known as the Knights of Anguish for the way they missed out on trophies, but such was the quality of its football Ernesto Lazzatti, the No. 5 of River's archrival Boca Juniors, said when he played them he'd rather be in the stand watching and admiring.
Ajax '72 -- Rinus Michels established Total Football at Ajax, but it was after he had left for Barcelona in 1971 that the side of Johan Cruyff, Johan Neeskens and Piet Keizer reached its peak, let off the leash by Stefan Kovacs and producing stunning soccer to win the second of three successive European Cups in 1972.
Flamengo '81 -- For English fans there have been few such disconcerting sights as seeing a Liverpool team that had seemed indomitable both domestically and in Europe torn apart, but that's what happened in the Intercontinental Cup final of 1981. Zico's Flamengo, in the midst of a five-year golden period in which it also won two Carioca championships, three Brazilian state championships and the Copa Libertadores, won 3-0 against the Reds.
AC Milan '89 -- Italy had for decades been the land of the libero, but in 1987, Arrigo Sacchi arrived at AC Milan and imposed a back four and rigorous pressing. It was exhausting to play and exhilarating to watch, and a team featuring arguably the best back four there has ever been, plus the Dutch talents of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten won Serie A and two European Cups.
Here's how the games played out:
River Plate 0, Ajax 1 -- River Plate made most of the early running even if the playmaker Jose Moreno struggled to find space. The biggest threat came on the left from Felix Loustau in his deep-lying winger's role. For all River's intricate approach work, though, it struggled to break Ajax down and was regularly frustrated by the Dutch offside trap. Gradually the Monumental fell calm and, as Ajax's superior fitness began to tell, shortly before halftime Johan Cruyff drew his man-marker, Norberto Yacono, deep and played the ball behind him for Sjaak Swaart to cross for Piet Keizer, darting in form the right, to score. The second half was a story of Ajax denying River possession as it protected its lead.
Flamengo 1, AC Milan 1 -- For a time, Flamengo's attacking approach seemed as though it may unsettle Milan, the four attacking midfielders and the overlapping fullbacks stretching Milan's 4-4-2. Nunes was repeatedly caught offside, but there had been plenty of warnings when, midway through the first half, an angled ball from Zico beat the offside trap, laying in Junior on a familiar charge from left back. With Milan backtracking in vain, he cut into the box and rolled the ball square for Nunes to score. There is a toughness to this Milan, though, and when Junior was caught in possession shortly after halftime, Roberto Donadoni had space to accelerate down the right and cross for Marco van Basten to level with a typically precise header.
Ajax 2, Flamengo 0 -- Who knows what might have happened if Ajax hadn't got the early goal, Flamengo's coach Paulo Cesar Carpegiani said, but it did. As Andrade tracked Cruyff, Johan Neeskens burst through the center, latched on to the through-ball, and bustled between Mozer and Marinho before pummeling his shot past Raul. It was Flamengo's bad luck to come up against a second hard-pressing team and, starved of possession, its vaunted front five never got a look-in. Ajax, admirably composed, circulated the ball intelligently and rounded off the win five minutes from time with a Neeskens penalty.
AC Milan 3, River Plate 1 -- River's La Maquina side was superb with the ball, and with the likes of Yacono and Loustau better equipped to win it back than most. It foundered, though, against the rugged systematization of Milan. Carlo Ancelotti thumped in the opener from long range, and although there seemed just a shred of hope for the Argentines when Angel Labruna skipped by Alessandro Costacurta to level midway through the first half, River was suffocated by Milan's pressing. Ground down, it allowed Ruud Gullit space in the box to make the most of Mauro Tassotti's cross midway through the second half, and a tired challenge from Ricardo Varghi on Van Basten late on allowed the Dutch striker to make the game safe from the penalty spot, securing qualification for the last eight.
River Plate 1, Flamengo 1 -- River was already out, undone by two pressing sides; Flamengo needed a win and for Milan to lose to Ajax. It looked like it might get it as Zico belted in an early free kick but, allowed space to play, River showed just why it was in the tournament. As Loustau, the "fan-wing" dropped back to help counter Flamengo's 4-1-4-1, Adolfo Pedernera at last began to make an impression on the tournament, and seized on a Moreno through-ball to level on the hour. A draw, though, was of little use to either side.
Ajax 0, Milan 0 -- Ajax was already through, and Milan needed only a point. A win would have secured Sacchi's side a home draw in the quarterfinal, but when news filtered through of Zico's goal, discretion took over. As both sides pressed early on, there was a sense of a shapeless game compressed into a narrow belt across the middle of the pitch, but the longer it went on the more sense there was of going through the motions. A draw suited both sides, and that was what they got.