Sam Lewis Date: 4th June 2011 at 11:00am
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After Barcelona’s super human display in the Champions League final against Manchester United, the question on many people’s lips is whether this Barcelona is the best side football has ever seen.

If you watch the final in detail, and look at the statistics, it’s hard to argue with that notion, the Catalan’s holding 70% possession of the ball, completing in the region of 600 passes, and getting 12 shots on target in comparison with United’s one.

It’s safe to say then, at a time when they have no peers, Barca are competing with history. And if you look back through the ages, there is one side that jumps out of the dusty pages as major competition for the “Best Team Ever” tag.

Arrigo Saachi’s Milan. “Grande Milan”. The last side to ever retain the European Cup, and one of the finest first XI’s ever seen on a football pitch, the likes of Ruud Gullit, Franco Baresi, and the flying Dutchman making up the numbers in a side that, for, many years, had no competition on the world stage, sweeping aside opposition like irksome flies, and ascending to their lofty perch as one of the greatest sides in the game.

Despite massive cultural differences, there are many similarities between Guardiola’s Barcelona and that side. Both sides boast a strong core built on homegrown talent developed internally – Barca’s Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol and Pique matched by Milan’s Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta and Tassotti.

This reliance on players gathered from the youth side allowed both teams to form an unshakeable bond that surpasses a simple footballing ability – Baresi and Maldini’s telepathic connection at the back was  built up through years of playing and working together – mirrored by the Catalan club’s midfield maestro’s and Iniesta.

On top of the core built on youth and nationality, both sides possessed the “difference makers” – exceptional foreigners that added the extra sparkle to the team that made them world beaters.

For it was the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, and Marco Van Basten – for Barca it is Dani Alves and Lionel Messi. These players add the flair, the skill and shape the team around them. Barcelona would still be a great team without Lionel Messi, but they probably would not be able to scale the heights of football stardom that they have without the Argentine. Same can be said about Van Basten at Milan, who was probably the most complete striker of his generation.

Similarities can also be found tactically. Barca’s style of pressing the opposition in the rare event that they lose the ball was what Saachi’s were famed for – the former Parma coach encouraged his players to regain possession aggressively – every player pulling their own weight defensively to exhaust the opposition and control the pace of the game.

In additon to the wolf pack style defensive structure, both sides boasted extended attacking options – Milan’s offensivethreat not just posed by Van Basten – but supported in number by the likes of Gullit, Donadoni, Ancelotti and Rijkaard. Barcelona are eerily similar – a side could focus on Messi and Villa, to be undone by any one of Iniesta, Dani Alves or Pedro.  The difference lies in style – Barcelona’s forward threat is more fluid – Guardiola’s expansive 4-3-3 combined with the players at his disposal allows his side to be more flexible – time and time again we see Barca’s forward line and midfield switch positions, morphing into various different formations dependent on scenario – not allowing defenses to keep track of the players they see before them.

Milan’s 4-4-2 was more restrictive, as attacked more methodically, more business like – but were no less clinical. The “two banks of four” idea was favoured by Saachi – allowing his teams to defend and attack as one unit, choking the opposition at the back – and  overrunning sides like a tidal wave in attack. This theory, the extension of Johann Cruyff’s “Total Football” in the 70’s was the precursor to the way that the Spanish Champions play today.

The question is – in a match between these two sides – who would come out on top? Imagine the personal battles – Messi vs  Baresi, Alves vs Maldini, Van Basten vs Puyol?  Would Barca’s front line breach the Rossoneri wall? Will Milan’s physicality overcome Barca’s delicate style? All question’s that will go unanswered, but we can make predictions.

As shown in the Copa Del Rey Final, Barcelona can be outdone by aggression and physicality. in that final, Mourinho ordered his midfield to collapse space, not allowing Barca’spassing triangles to control play. They attacked Barca with and most importantly, without the ball. Manchester United did not do this, instead playing as close to their natural game as they could, and consequently suffered.  Saachi’s were the masters of this, and drilled his team with an inch of their lives to suffocate the opposition, forcing them to make mistakes when in control of the ball.

would press high against the Catalan’s, relying on their bulletproof defense to provide cover against Messi and Villa, whilst Rijkaard and Ancelotti keeptabs on Messi. Barcelona’s defence is not as stable as Milan’s was, and I think that’s where the game will be won and lost. A lone goal from the Rossoneri followed by a stern defensive display is what I would predict. A traditional Italian victory.

Back to the present, Barca are in a position to do something very special. If they repeat their feats domestically and continentally next year, then they become the first side since AC Milan to retain a European trophy, and the first in the era of the Champions League. The key to a great side is consistency, and if Barcelona can continue their cycle for one, if not two more seasons, then even I, will have to accept that we are witnessing the greatest side ever.

Time will tell, but as we head deeper into a sporting world filled with corruption and faceless markets, lucrative deals and shady power plays, it’s nice to see that some part of the world is continuing the beautiful game, the way it should be played.

Want to read more about Milan’s “Invincibles”?  See Rob Hutchinson’s Article here: Milan’s Invincibles or Padraig Whelan’s: Great Calcio Sides – Milan of the 1990’s.

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