Andy Mitten

Is this Barcelona side the greatest ever?

Andy Mitten

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Is this Barcelona line-up the greatest-ever club side? That's what Barca fans keep asking themselves this season.

Most agree that Pep Guardiola's team since 2008 is the best they've ever seen at Camp Nou - but the best ever? That's some claim.

Real Madrid may have been consigned to also-rans in Spain, the Madrid press reduced to emphasising the importance of the race for the Pichichi top scorers' award because they can't do the same with the title race.

With Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, the world's best two players, both on 24 goals - 11 clear of David Villa in third place - it does look exciting.

Messi has scored his goals in just 19 games and is well on target to break his own 34-goal tally which won the award last season. That was the same number which the other Ronaldo managed during one prolific season at Camp Nou in 1996-97. Also at threat is the league's all-time 38-goal record, held jointly by the legendary Athletic Bilbao striker Zarra.

The Basque was Spain's top scorer on six occasions between 1945-53 and managed 38 goals in 1950-51. The only other player to hit 38 was Real Madrid's Hugo Sanchez in 1989-90.

All very interesting, but a side attraction to the main event of winning trophies. Madrid fans laugh at claims in the Catalan media that the current Barca side is the best ever and rightly single out the Real team which won the first five European Cups, a feat unlikely to ever be reproduced in the modern game. Ajax did win three consecutive European Cups in the 70s, as did Bayern Munich.

Liverpool won four European Cups in eight years between '77-'84, but no team has retained the continent's most prestigious cup competition since the great Milan side of Gullit, Rijkaard and Van Basten in 1989 & 1990.

There have been plenty of top teams since: the Juventus of Zidane, Davids and Deschamps which Roy Keane claimed was "the best team I ever played by a distance".

And a side Keane led, if not in their greatest moment: Manchester United's treble winners. The Real Madrid side of Raul, Figo and Roberto Carlos who won three European Cups in five seasons, or Carlo Ancellotti's Milan in the mid-Noughties. All tremendous teams, but how do you judge objectively which was the greatest?

If lifting European Cups is the only true measure of a side's greatness, can today's Barcelona go on to dominate abroad like they do at home?

The pitchside hoardings at Camp Nou proclaim that La Liga is the best league in the world, but it's far from the most competitive. Barca are stacking up record winning runs and goalscoring feats against clubs who operate on a tenth of their budget. And Real Madrid.

Barca are undeniably brilliant, but it's hardly a level playing field. If they start beating Manchester United, Chelsea, Bayern Munich or Milan by five or six then more will take notice, but you seldom see results like that in the latter stages of the Champions League. Winning it is hard enough. 

Gerard Pique claims that the luck element of every cup competition will prevent such dominance. Holders Barca lost out to an Internazionale side last season who, by Catalan consensus, they would have beaten seven times out of 10.

But Barca didn't play 10 times, they played twice - and they were eliminated. They didn't take defeat well either and turned on the sprinklers as the Inter players celebrated in front of their 5,000 travelling fans.

After signing a one-year contract extension this week which will keep him at Camp Nou until 2012, Guardiola claimed: "Inter's semi-final at Camp Nou was, for many, not a game of football. For me, it was. It was almost a game of chess."

Indeed. It was a game of chess Guardiola lost. He knows the team have to hold their nerve as they did when they won all six competitions they entered in 2009, five of which were in cup format.

Until Barca can dominate the top trophies at home and abroad, they will 'only' be as good as those other top sides who have failed to retain the European Cup. Lionel Messi might dominate the individual awards, but these are subjective - based on the views of those who vote for him, national coaches from Tuvalu to Tanzania.

To the Barca fans who go to games every week to watch their heroes toy with their opponents as they enjoy 70 per cent of possession, who are so happily spoiled that they start getting nervy if Barca are not a goal up after 20 minutes, this is already the greatest ever Barca side. The best the planet has ever seen.

To the rest, Pep Guardiola's men still have some way to go to prove those claims.

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