Only once in a generation does a group of players come together to define their era, conquer the world and mark themselves as indisputably the world’s best team.
There was the legendary Real Madrid team of the 1950s; Ajax’s Total Football pioneers of the 1970s, Milan’s all-stars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and perhaps the greatest of them all: Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
With Italian football taking hold in the 1990s, Spanish clubs played second fiddle. While both Barcelona and Real Madrid were still able to attract the biggest names, Real had gone 11 years without even making a European Cup final let alone winning one, while Barcelona had enjoyed their finest days under Johan Cruyff in the early 90s with two finals (and a win) in three years, but themselves followed that with 11 years without a final of their own.
The unstoppable force that was mid-2000s Ronaldinho saw Barcelona win the 2006 Champions League, but an enormous transition soon followed. Frank Rijkaard had built perhaps the best side in Europe, but it didn’t have the makings of a dynasty and so Barcelona quickly moved on from the Rijkaard-Ronaldinho era to the Guardiola-Messi one, with only three players starting both the 2006 and 2009 Champions League finals.
2008 came slightly too soon for Barca and Messi. While their semi-final with eventual winners Manchester United could so easily have gone the other way, it was the English side who emerged victorious, but Barca would be back a year later with a vengeance – and a new manager…
There weren’t sweeping changes between the 2007/08 and 2008/09 teams, but there was a rather notable one in the dugout. Two seasons of failure saw Rijkaard dismissed with Pep Guardiola taking his first senior managerial job.
It’s easy to forget where Barcelona were when Guardiola arrived. Barcelona were title-less in two years and had finished a distant third in 2008, 18 points behind Real Madrid and 10 points behind second-place Villarreal.
Guardiola would introduce his own brand of possession-heavy football, passing sides to death from back to front, but aside from his footballing philosophy, Guardiola knew the profile of player needed to make his vision a reality and the likes of Ronaldinho and Deco didn’t fit the bill.
The brilliant Brazilian had lost his way in the previous, injury-plagued season, and Guardiola knew he needed moving on. Deco followed suit, while Gianluca Zambrotta and Gabriel Milito gave way with Gerard Pique forming a formidable partnership with Carles Puyol. Dani Alves arrived from Sevilla, with his marauding runs constantly opening up space for Lionel Messi to be at his brilliant best, with a 20-year-old Sergio Busquets introduced to the side.
Naturally, the implementation of such a style – even for the La Masia scholars – would take a little time. Barcelona picked up one point from their first two games, and relied on three late goals in the next couple of weeks to avoid dropping more points to Real Betis and Espanyol.
But Barcelona quickly got to grips with Guardiola’s methods and were 12 points clear of Real Madrid by February.
The highlight of any trophy-laden season is of course the silverware, but a 6-2 win in your arch-rivals’ back yard must come close.
After taking over from Bernd Schuster, Juande Ramos lost his opening game to Barcelona, but then took 52 points from a possible 54 to close the gap to four points with a game in hand and a must-win home game with Barcelona to take the advantage in the title race.
Real would take an early lead, one that was quickly cancelled out by the archetypal Thierry Henry finish. Captain Puyol headed home minutes later and Barca went into the half-time break 3-1 up; it was a scoreline that greatly flattered the hosts.
A side that had won 17 of their last 18 games were being made to look like amateurs as Barcelona cut them open time and time again with surgical precision and while Real briefly got themselves back into the game, a shell-shocked Bernabeu watched in silence as Barcelona played exhibition football in the game’s biggest fixture. The 2009 title was as good as gone, but more concerningly for Real Madrid fans, it looked like the next few titles might be going with it.
The second Clasico of the season that saw Barcelona win 6-2 and was sandwiched between their Champions League semi-final with Chelsea; Barcelona looking to right the wrongs of the previous season, with Chelsea themselves looking to avenge their penalty shootout defeat in the final 12 months earlier.
At the risk of history repeating itself, Barcelona drew the home leg 0-0 before heading to England knowing a score draw would see them through.
And at the risk of history repeating itself further, they would go 1-0 down to an early wondergoal, scored by Michael Essien.
Barcelona were the better team with the better players, but on the night it was all Chelsea. Things weren’t clicking for the visitors, who might have had more of the ball but couldn’t do anything with it while Chelsea created a number of chances to kill off the tie. Barcelona, who had Eric Abidal sent off after an hour didn’t have a single shot on target in the first 90 minutes of the game.
Of course, even the great sides need a stroke of luck along the way, certainly as far as cup competitions go, and Barcelona used up plenty of theirs that night at Stamford Bridge. A 93rd-minute goal from Andres Iniesta was the ultimate sucker-punch after (and before) hugely contentious refereeing decisions, but Barcelona went through on away goals to face the European champions.
Though they wouldn’t win any of their final four league games, Barca would win the title handily, but not before the first trophy of their treble in the Copa del Rey.
Athletic Club took the lead in the final and admirably battled on for the first half, but as everyone else did that season, bowed before Barcelona, simply unable to keep up with their opponents who ran out 4-1 winners.
Barca were officially crowned as champions on 16th May when Real Madrid lost 3-2 to Villarreal, giving them 11 days to prepare for the final leg of their treble bid.
There may have only been 12 months between their semi-final exit to Manchester United and their final with the reigning European champions, but Barcelona were a totally different team by now.
Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pique and Puyol – much of the team’s spine – were fresh off their Euro 2008 win, and there was an increasingly prominent aura around them. Of course, Manchester United were hardly lacking in talent themselves. Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were arguably the greatest defensive pairing of their day, setting records that season for consecutive clean sheets; there was the world-class Wayne Rooney, and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner in Cristiano Ronaldo.
But for all of the teams’ abilities, it felt like the game would hinge on the final’s two superstars, with the winner settling the debate of who the world’s best player was.
To an extent, it did. Ronaldo didn’t turn up for United, while Messi would head home the second goal, sealing the win and a first Ballon d’Or.
In fairness to Ronaldo, he was stripped of his powers that night. A rondo is usually performed in a 10m x 10m box but on 27th May 2009, it was performed on a full-size football pitch. Manchester United were the second best team in the world at that point, but they couldn’t live with Barcelona.
Despite a handful of half chances for Ronaldo in the opening stages, Samuel Eto’o burst through to score an early opener, and United hardly had a look-in from there.
Messi would find space between John O’Shea and Ferdinand to head home a second, unceremoniously ending Manchester United’s reign as European champions as Rome would bear witness to the birth of a new empire.
His first season in senior management and Pep Guardiola had won the treble. It was a remarkable achievement and with a core of home-grown players it was hard to see how it would be broken up. For as long as Guardiola’s tenure lasted, it wouldn’t.
The Barcelona side set about their campaign to win back-to-back Champions Leagues; a feat no one had done in the Champions League era, but only one player would manage to do so: Samuel Eto’o.
Guardiola had reached football’s zenith, but in trying to build upon that, would take a backward step.
In one of his most misguided transfers, Guardiola sanctioned a swap deal that didn’t just see Eto’o leave for Inter with Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving the other direction, but saw Barcelona fork over around £40m on top.
Ibrahimovic was certainly one of the world’s best strikers and Eto’o would be 29 at the end of the season. Ibrahimovic would score in each of his first five Barcelona games, then making it 12 in 13 by Christmas, but trouble was brewing.
Guardiola needed disciples and despite only being in management for a year, he’d earned them; followers who would set their ego aside and put total faith in their manager. Victor Valdes recounted a story of being shown a tactics board by Guardiola with three magnets on – a goalkeeper and two players either side of him on the byline. When asked who the other players were, Valdes had no idea, and when finding out they represented his centre-backs, he thought his manager was crazy.
Nevertheless, Valdes did what he was told, passing to his centre-backs. As did everyone else. Ibrahimovic, however, did not. Hardly a shrinking violet, Ibrahimovic had bust-ups with Guardiola, famously accusing his manager of driving his Ferrari like a Fiat.
It’s easy to cynically dismiss much of Guardiola’s career as him working with the world’s best players and almost unlimited funds, but he unquestionably changed the game, implementing a style of football not seen before, at least not in this generation, but Ibrahimovic was unwilling to be a mere foot soldier.
The Swede finished with a decent return of 16 goals in 29 appearances (six of which were from the bench), but found himself increasingly sidelined as the season went on, with Messi being deployed as a false 9 and Pedro being introduced.
Guardiola’s Camp Nou had no place for egos, and Ibrahimovic would spend one season in Spain before returning to Milan.
Domestically, despite the friction between Ibrahimovic and Guardiola, Barcelona would record another El Clasico double, amassing a record 99 points to win a second straight title, but their treble bid was halted by Sevilla, with Barca unable to overturn their first-leg deficit.
While Guardiola had spent the best part of two years having things all his own way, Jose Mourinho would give him a rude awakening.
His time with Porto took Mourinho into the mainstream; his time with Chelsea established him as one of the world’s best coaches, and him being passed over for the Barcelona job, with Guardiola favoured, hurt the Portuguese.
The Champions League semi-final between Mourinho’s Inter – who were chasing a treble of their own – and the kings of Europe would be a blockbuster.
Inter didn’t have the flair and star power of Barcelona, but they did share a common willingness to give absolutely everything for their manager. There has been a sort of cult of personality around Mourinho at many of his clubs, and while he was no stranger to public bust-ups, those who loved him worshipped him.
He’d built a side of battlers, with the Argentinian grit of Esteban Cambiasso, Javier Zanetti and Walter Samuel, with Dejan Stankovic, Sulley Muntari and Thiago Motta reinforcing the solidity in midfield. Mourinho even turned Eto’o into a more workmanlike winger, a role he was all too happy to take on. In a way, they were the perfect contrast to Guardiola’s tiki-takistas.
Inter went behind in the first leg but turned the game on its head, with three goals putting them in pole position.
The second leg will forever go down as one of Mourinho’s finest hours, needing a tactical masterclass to repel Barcelona. Thiago Motta’s controversial sending off left Inter with an hour to play with 10 men, but Mourinho backed his side: Barcelona may score once against us, but they won’t get two. In the end, despite a late goal from Pique giving them a scare, Inter emerged victorious. The brilliant Barcelona had been blunted.
Inter’s treble win earned Mourinho at crack at the biggest job in world football, where he’d again find himself in the opposite dugout to Guardiola.
The world’s top two coaches managing the world’s top two clubs. The 2009 treble winner vs the 2010 treble winner. The Guardiola era in just two years had established something of a dominance in Spain; Real hadn’t beaten Barcelona in a Clasico in four matches, losing all four with an aggregate score of 11-2, never mind won a trophy. Instead, they’d watched Barcelona play a brand of football that was not only effective but had everyone drooling. For Real Madrid, it was less about the brand of football and more about the result, and they’d found a manager who’d matched their ethos perfectly.
It’s what made their first meeting all the more gut-wrenching for Mourinho.
Mourinho has always been at his best as the underdog, us against the world: winning the Champions League with Porto; guiding Chelsea to a first title in 50 years (albeit with a formidable budget), overthrowing all-conquering Barcelona with less-fashionable Inter, even the 2-0 after returning to Chelsea against Liverpool to deny them the title. At Madrid, there were no excuses.
While Barcelona now had a squad of world champions, many of whom had won the Euros two years earlier, and would occupy the top three spots in the Ballon d’Or in a few months’ time, Real Madrid also had a handful of those world champions, and reinforced their squad with young talent who’d impressed in South Africa, including Mesut Ozil, Angel Di Maria and Sami Khedira.
It would be a tough sell for Mourinho to convince his players this was a backs-to-the-wall job. Nevertheless, Real kicked and hacked and shoved their way to a 5-0 defeat. Mourinho wanted to make the game ugly; Guardiola wanted to make the game beautiful, and beautiful it was. The 5-0 win was Barcelona’s biggest in El Clasico since 1994 when managed by John Cruyff – the last great Barcelona team.
As the season went on, Real found themselves seven points behind their rivals, and the second Clasico was a game Real needed to win. Barcelona left the Santiago Bernabeu with a draw and looked ahead to the Copa del Rey final, for what would be the second of four Clasicos in little over a fortnight.
At long last, Guardiola’s run against Madrid would come to an end, with a Ronaldo header in extra time ending Barcelona’s treble hopes.
Four days later, the two clubs would meet again in the Champions League semi-final. As he had successfully in the Copa del Rey final, Mourinho deployed Pepe as a holding midfielder to limit Messi’s influence, and it was working again, until the Portuguese’s sending off after an hour.
Sure enough, 15 minutes later, Messi would run through the now-unoccupied space to score one of the competition’s great goals. The visitors would win 2-0, a big enough lead to see them into another Champions League final, where they would again face Manchester United.
This was a different United side to the won beaten two years earlier. Ronaldo was no longer there, nor was Carlos Tevez, and many of the key players were all two years older. The English champions played their part, but Barca were simply too good once again.
The first goal featured dizzying movement from Barca forwards that left Pedro in acres of space, and while Rooney was on hand to score an unlikely equaliser, there was only one side winning the game. Messi would power a drive past Edwin van der Sar, while Villa would bend one in from the edge of the area. The final finished 3-1 but it was an absolute trouncing and Guardiola’s men were champions of Europe again.
There’s not all that much to choose between Guardiola’s 08/09 side and his 10/11 side; the former won the treble, while the latter only won the double, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the double winners were a shade better, and were as close to footballing perfection as one could get.
Guardiola inherited his first side and got the absolute maximum out of them, but by 2010, he’d been able to fine-tune his team.
Yaya Toure, Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry were all gone, replaced by Javier Mascherano, David Villa and Pedro.
There was Sergio Busquets, brilliant beyond his years, establishing himself as one of the world’s best holding midfielders, forming an unstoppable triumvirate with Xavi and Iniesta, with the former always available to receive the ball and place it wherever he wanted, the latter able to glide past defenders, not with raw pace but hypnotising footwork.
There was, however, a drop-off in 2011/12. Despite Messi scoring a mere 73 goals in all competitions, Barca were beaten to the title by a record 100-point haul from Real Madrid, and Guardiola would depart that summer.
Guardiola would leave Barcelona after four hugely successful seasons at Camp Nou, leaving an indelible mark not just on Catalonia, but the entire footballing world.
In those four seasons, Barcelona won three titles and made the Champions League semi-finals in all four years, going on to win two of them. But for an Icelandic volcano and a Messi penalty hitting the bar, it could well have been two more wins.
Since then, while the Messi era produced plenty more league titles and another Champions League win, things were never quite the same, certainly in Europe, where they’d only reach three semi-finals in nine years.
It can be argued that Guardiola was so successful because of his team, and equally that the team were so successful because of Guardiola.
The reality lies somewhere in the middle: that they were so successful because of each other.