It's a question so often posed in the realm of sports. What if a certain player wasn't suspended, traded or hurt? What if a controversial call went another way? What if a coach had called a different play? What if a certain matchup had occurred at a different time?
That last question, above the others, has piqued our interest. In light of Floyd Mayweather finally facing Manny Pacquiao this Saturday in Las Vegas, years after both boxing greats were widely considered to be at their absolute best, it got us wondering: What if two soccer titans of their era who never got the chance to meet at their peaks actually did? All week in the build-up to Mayweather-Pacquiao, Planet Fútbol will take a historical deep dive into some of the greatest teams in soccer history, why they ultimately never got the chance to meet their equals and what might have happened if they had.
We started with the Uruguay and Austria national teams of the early 1930s and moved to Argentine power River Plate's La Máquina and Il Grande Torino of the 1940s. We followed up with Pelé's Brazil and Johan Cruyff's Netherlands of the early 1970s and the great Brazil and France teams of the early 1980s.
For our final piece, we turn to AC Milan's back-to-back European champions and Liverpool's great team of the late 80s, which was limited by the ban on English clubs from European competition:
AC MILAN, 1989-1990
World Soccer voted the AC Milan side from 1989-90 season as the best club side of all time, even though it finished two points behind Diego Maradona's Napoli in the race for Serie A. What it did do, though, is retain the European Cup trophy, beating Benfica 1-0 12 months after beating Steaua Bucharest 4-0: something no club has done in the 25 years since. Milan's success was down to Arrigo Sacchi, who overturned Italy's catenaccio-obsessed style with a precursor to Barcelona's high-pressing game. His team's high intensity and high defensive line squeezed play into the middle of the field, where Carlo Ancelotti and Frank Rijkaard would get the better of most opponents.
SI writer Jonathan Wilson noted in his book Inverting the Pyramid that "the distance between his defensive and forward lines was never more than 25 meters, so opponents would need to break down three lines of players in quick succession." No wonder so few managed it: Franco Baresi superbly drilled the defense. Sacchi's obsession with team shape over individual brilliance was best summed up by the story of his training routine.
Whenever the players complained at his mention of "shape," he would set up a drill: five defensive players–Giovanni Galli in goal, Mauro Tassotti, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Baresi against 10 outfield players. The outfield players never scored. "It was my way of saying five organized players are better than 10 disorganized players," said Sacchi.
Ruud Gullit, with typical Dutch awareness of space, could drop back or forward and play as a No. 8, 9, or 10 behind Marco van Basten, who at the time was the best player in the world. Had his career not been cut short by injury, we may still be speaking of him in hallowed terms reserved for others.
So why didn't this side win more? In four years, Sacchi only won one Serie A title, as well as the double European Cup. Italian journalist Federico Farcomeni explained why: "Physically they put in a huge amount of effort in every game and, especially in winter, they struggled for consistency. That's why in Italy they definitely underachieved."
In 1990, it lost its penultimate game of the season in Verona (when Sacchi, Rijkaard and Van Basten were all sent off) but the title was lost in winter, when Milan lost to Napoli, Cremonese and Ascoli). It also lost the Coppa Italia final 1-0 to Juventus. But put this side up against a European team and it would normally come out on top.
Liverpool was the dominant side in England in the 1980s, winning six league titles in that decade. In this particular season, it went 29 matches unbeaten from the start, all the more impressive since its front three were all new signings: John Aldridge, who replaced Ian Rush, ahead of John Barnes and Peter Beardsley. Aldridge scored in each of his first nine games but it was Barnes who stole the show: with 15 goals in his debut season, Liverpool writer Paul Tomkins wondered if he peaked in his debut season.
"Despite a full decade at Anfield, did Barnes ever perform better than in his first year?" he wrote. "Or did the shock and awe of that first season create a fantasy, where anything less than beating several men and providing a cool finish, produced disappointment? Had he painted himself into a corner of perfection?"
Under player-manager Kenny Dalglish, in the era when that was possible (though Dalglish played little this season), Liverpool adopted a 4-2-3-1 system, 10 years before others considered it. Another new signing, Ray Houghton, helped the front three behind midfielders Jan Molby and Steve McMahon. The pinnacle was a near-perfect 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest in which one of the scorers was Gary Gillespie, one of three Scottish defenders, along with Alan Hansen and Steve Nicol.
It seems astonishing now that none played more than 28 times for their country, as Nicol and, in particular, Hansen, were outstanding.
Liverpool did not win the expected league and FA Cup double, as it was the object of one of the biggest shocks in the competition's history, losing the 1988 final to the "Crazy Gang" of Wimbledon. The sadness of this team is that we were never able to see just how good it was up against the rest of Europe.
WHY THEY NEVER MET AT THEIR PEAKS
English clubs were banned from competing in European competition for five seasons for their role in the Heysel Stadium tragedy at the 1985 European Cup final. A total of 39 people died and more than 400 were injured when a wall collapsed at the stadium in Brussels before the game between Liverpool and Juventus, which still took place. The Italian side won 1-0.
Sacchi only took the Milan job in 1987, but within a few years had turned his side into one of the best ever.
Unlike Dalglish, he was never a decent player, but he did coin the excellent phrase: "I never realized that to become a jockey, you had to be a horse first." Jose Mourinho, Rafa Benitez and Arsene Wenger would all agree, and that's probably a first, too.
HOW IT WOULD'VE PLAYED OUT
Sacchi recently spoke about his Milan side taking on Pep Guardiola's Barcelona 2009 team and insisted that no special plan would be needed to restrict Lionel Messi. In the same way, Sacchi would allow John Barnes his normal role for Liverpool and trust the defense, one that would stick together for another seven years, until 1997, to see him off.
"You just need players who know how to read the game," said Sacchi, and in that respect, his spine of Baresi, Ancelotti, Gullit and Van Basten had the edge on Liverpool.
And while Sacchi was an innovator, so too was Dalglish, who would push Houghton up into an attacking midfielder to form a triple-threat behind Aldridge. No one else was playing 4-2-3-1 at the time, but Sacchi's well-drilled group would probably have coped.
The only moments of tension for Milan might be when Barnes was one-on-one against Tassotti, but the English winger could not do everything himself. Milan's defense had the hallmarks of Italian steadiness while its attack had the flair of a Latin side. In midfield, Ancelotti and Rijkaard, a true linchpin of the team (and similar to Andrea Pirlo when Ancelotti was coach), were stronger than McMahon and the less mobile Molby.
Any question marks over Milan's mental edge disappeared in European encounters: Milan won the UEFA SuperCup in a two-legged contest in the middle of the season, won the Intercontinental Cup in December and remains the last team to win back-to-back European Cups. It beat three teams–Belgium's Malines, Germany's Bayern Munich and Colombia's Atlético Nacional–in extra time and won six international games by one goal.
This international experience would have given Milan the edge, though having two Ballon d'Or winners, in Gullit and Van Basten, certainly would help as well.
When Liverpool would get close to the opposition area, the Italian defense would make life hard, and Aldridge would often get called offside. When Milan drew 1-1 with Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, before Milan won the second leg 5-0, the Spaniards were caught offside 27 times.
Both Dutchmen would score and Milan would sit back when up 2-0 and coasting. Barnes pulls one back for Liverpool by cutting past Tassotti and drilling home past Galli (a weak link but not so significant for Sacchi, who believed that the ball shouldn't get near his goalkeeper anyway) and as Liverpool pushes for an equalizer, Roberto Donadoni sets up substitute Marco Simone for a third. Milan wins it 3-1.