Tournament of all-time greatest club teams: Part IV, Semis, Final
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
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. From the original list of 16, the teams that qualified for the semifinals were as follows:
Bayern '74 vs. Barcelona '11
Ajax '72 vs. Milan '89
Here's how the games played out:
It proved a comfortable win for Barcelona, as Bayern never got to grips with Barca's hard-pressing game. Squeezed deep into its own half, Bayern struggled to bring Gerd Muller into the game, and he was regularly caught offside. An early goal helped, Barca taking a 14th-minute lead as Franz Beckenbauer was drawn out of the back four to close down Andres Iniesta as Eric Abidal overlapped. He played the ball inside for Xavi, whose first time angled ball found David Villa cutting inside Paul Breitner. Villa controlled it with his right foot, then bent a calm finish inside Sepp Maier's right-hand post with his left.
Barca was then quite happy to keep possession, frustrating Bayern who, even when it did win the ball, struggled to bring its wingers into play. Conny Torstensson was cowed by Dani Alves' forward sallies, never quite trusting himself to remain high up the pitch, while Abidal dominated Jupp Kappellmann. Muller was fleetingly dangerous when Bayern did get balls into the box, but its threat was inconsistent, stifled high up the pitch. Lionel Messi settled the game with 10 minutes to go, seizing on the loose ball after Busquets had challenged Uli Hoeness on half way, accelerating through two tired half-challenges and slotting a calm finish under Maier.
BAYERN (4-3-3): Sepp Maier; Johnny Hansen, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck, Franz Beckenbauer, Paul Breitner; Franz Roth, Rainer Zobel, Uli Hoeness; Conny Torstensson, Müller, Jupp Kapellmann.
BARCELONA (4-3-3): Victor Valdes; Dani Alves, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Eric Abidal; Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta; David Villa, Lionel Messi, Pedro.
Sometimes great sides just cancel each other out. With both teams pressing hard, this became a physical contest, much of it fought in a narrow strip either side of halfway. Marco van Basten and Sjaak Swart each had the ball in the net only to be ruled offside. With Ajax enjoying a man advantage in central midfield -- and often two with Johan Cruyff dropping back -- the home side slowly began to take control, the attempts of Angelo Colombo to drift infield to add numbers only encouraging Wim Suurbier to advance from fullback.
Once, midway through the second half, Ruud Gullit seemed to have broken through, running on to a Frank Rijkaard pass, but Horst Blankenburg, the Ajax libero, recovered to make a vital challenge just outside the box. The winner came seven minutes from time, Cruyff dropping deep to receive the ball from Arie Haan, and switching the ball left for Piet Keizer. As Franco Baresi came across to cover, he swept the ball cross field for Swart, who took it down on his chest, and scored with a calm angled finish.
AJAX (4-3-3): Heinz Stuy; Wim Suurbier, Horst Blankenburg, Barry Hulshoff, Ruud Krol; Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan, Gerrie Mühren; Sjaak Swart, Johan Cruyff, Piet Keizer.
MILAN (4-4-2): Giovanni Galli; Mauro Tasotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini; Roberto Donadoni, Frank Rijkaard, Carlo Ancelotti, Angelo Colombo, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten.