Tournament of all-time greatest club teams (cont.)
The grand final:
Ajax '72 vs. Barcelona '11
Here's how the game played out:
(at Praterstadion, Vienna)
An epic tournament deserved an epic final, and it got it: the great Total-footballing side of the Seventies against its modern incarnation. Ajax benefited from winning the draw to play under the rules of its era, and a couple of crunching early challenges from Johan Neeskens, unthinkable in the modern game, unsettled Xavi and Lionel Messi. Dani Alves, too, looked flustered by the aggression of Ajax, and it was his error that led to -- yet another -- early goal for the Dutch. Piet Keizer, pressing high up the field, intercepted a hurriedly-struck pass inside toward Sergio Busquets and was just quick enough to stay ahead of the Brazilian. As Gerard Pique came to close him down, swept in the perfect ball for Johan Cruyff to score with a deft header.
One of this Barcelona's strengths, though, is that it is never rattled for long, and Ajax soon came to seem unnerved by facing a team that pressed as well as it did. The game settled into pattern of one side holding the ball around halfway, going back if it needed to, attempting to draw its opponent on, and constantly probing for gaps in the defensive organization. With the central area congested, both Messi and Cruyff dropping back from the forward line to join the midfield, the key battles came on the flanks, Alves against Ruud Krol and Eric Abidal against Wim Suurbier.
It was on the Barca right that the skirmishes were particularly fierce. Where Abidal and Suurbier held back a little, warily watching the other. Krol and Alves both tore forwards, seemingly heedless to space that might be left behind them, the Brazilian, in particular, apparently desperate to rectify his earlier error. Fittingly, he had a key part in the 32nd-minute equalizer, winning the ball from Krol and laying it inside to Sergio Busquets. A flurry of passes later and the ball came to Messi just inside the Ajax half. He squeezed a pass between Neeskens, and Barry Hulshoff and behind the backtracking Krol, for David Villa, who held it a moment, and, as Krol got back, pushed it outside for Alves. With his pace, he was uncatchable, hurtling into the box and crossing low for Pedro, darting across the near post, to score with a neat flick.
Tails up, Barca finished the half much the stronger. Pedro was denied a second by Henk Stuy's speed off his line as Messi laid him through and Andres Iniesta send a drive fizzing just over, but with Barca dominating possession, Ajax was content to pack men behind the ball and hold out for the break. Having achieved that, though, it conceded four minutes into the second, a diagonal ball from Xavi laying in Villa, who advanced on Stuy and rolled the ball square for Messi to tap in.
Against other teams, Barca may have been able simply to keep the ball, but Ajax's pressing was relentless, Neeskens in particular steaming into challenges. With 20 minutes to go, he clattered into Busquets, taking man and ball together: in the modern age it would surely have been foul, probably a yellow card, but the 1970s referee played on, Cruyff gathered the loose ball, played a one-two with Gerrie Muhren, and chipped Victor Valdes from just outside the box.
Both sides had chances to win it after that. Pedro slid a shot across the face of goal after being played through by Xavi, and Iniesta drew a sprawling save from Stoy. At the other end, Keizer drove into the body of Valdes after Cruyff had laid him in, and Cruyff was a fraction from a hat trick with a curling effort from the left side of the box that grazed the post. Then, with four minutes to go, Horst Blankenburg, stepping out from sweeper, reached a Busquets pass just before Messi, advanced a few yards and pushed the ball right for Muhren. As he was closed down he played it left to Haan, 30 yards from goal. The speed of the ball had opened the tiniest of gaps, but it was enough. Haan let fly, and the ball scorched into the top corner with Valdes standing. An essentially even game had been settled by Ajax's greater physicality and wider range of scoring options.
AJAX (4-3-3): Stuy; Suurbier, Blankenburg, Hulshoff, Krol; Haan, Neeskens, G.Mühren; Swart, Cruyff, Keizer.
BARCELONA (4-3-3): Valdes; Dani Alves, Puyol, Pique, Abidal; Xavi, Busquets, Iniesta; Villa, Messi, Pedro.
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.