Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a four-part imaginary tournament between 16 of the all-time greatest club teams in soccer history. Parts 1, 2 and 3 can be found 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. 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.
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 ofThe Blizzard.