Europe’s Big Three

by Usman Ahmad

‘The ‘Mou Team’ Ends the Curse’ was the headline emblazoned across the Marca website after Real Madrid reached the Champions League quarter finals for the first time in seven seasons. As fans and pundits hailed an ‘extraordinary feat’, the manager Jose Mourinho nonchalantly suggested that the achievement of his team was par for the course for a club the size of Real, what was extraordinary was the fact that they had failed to get passed the second round for such a long time. After drawing Tottenham Hotspur in the last eight the Portuguese maestro went onto describe the club as the ‘Champion of Champions’ – a reference to their record nine European Cup triumphs.

Ever since Florentino Perez returned as President of Madrid in 2009, the club have been on a manic quest to reclaim what they perceive as the rightful place in world football – at the very pinnacle of the game. But for all their magnificent history, galacticos and ‘special’ manager, there was a trimutive of teams that joined them in the quarter final draw on the 18th who all have a strong case for considering themselves the current best in the world; Barcelona, Manchester United and Inter Milan. This will be certain to raise a few eyebrows but a close analysis of each club shows that their respective claims are not without merit.

European and International Honours

Together, Barcelona, Manchester United and Inter represent the past three winners of the Champions League; Barcelona also won the competition in 2006. In a staggering coincidence it was the third victory in the tournament for each club. Further still, all three went onto win the World Club Cup the season after. Since the current Champions League format began Barcelona have reached three finals four further semi-finals and won a Cup Winners Cup in 1997. Like Barca, Manchester United have reached three finals in the same period, turning out winners twice and have two further semi-finals to their name. Only once has the club failed to make it out of the group stages and that was in 2006 and they have also qualified more times for the tournament than any other team. Of the three, Inter Milan have the poorest Champions League record, but despite that they are the current holders and have once again made it to the last eight and stand a good chance of reaching the semis. Nor is their European record as bad as many would presume. The Milanese giants have qualified for the tournament ten times and the last nine in succession. Not only that, but in the Champions League era they have also won the UEFA cup twice and been runners up once – an enviable record and far better than many illustrious European giants.

Domestic Honors

On the domestic front Barcelona have won four of the last six La Liga titles and a Spanish cup. Over the past two seasons, the Catalan giants have also broken the record points tally for the Primera Division with 87 and 99 points respectively and incredulously are on course to break it again this year. Since Pep Guardiola first took charge their league record reads won 83, drawn 15 and lost just 7 with a positive goal difference of 210 (crikey!!).

As for Manchester United, three Premiership titles and two League Cup triumphs in the past four years have seen the club re-assume their place at the top of English football. United currently lead the Premier League table and should they clinch the championship it will be a record 19th title, overhauling the current record they jointly hold with fierce rivals Liverpool.

It took the calciopeli scandal to pave the way for Inernazionale to win their first domestic championship since 1989 when they were awarded the 2005-2006 Serie A championship through the courts. However, since then the club have proceeded to claim four consecutive championships on the football field and currently lie in second place, two points behind local rivals AC Milan whom they are set to meet this weekend (depending when this is published the game may have already taken place). They have also won the Coppa Italia twice in that time and been runners-up thrice (the number three is becoming a bit of a theme).

In another interesting quirk of fate, Barcelona, Manchester United and Inter are the only teams in their respective countries to have done ‘The Treble’ (winning the domestic championship, cup and Champions League in the same season.) In the case of Barcelona, their treble was part of an unprecedented achievement of winning six trophies in a calendar year.

The Players

This is where Football Club Barcelona really come into their own. In BackPageFootball’s recent series of the best 50 players in the world, no fewer than nine Barca players  made the cut, with three of them in the top five. Top of the pile was of course the ‘playstation player’ himself, the ‘new Maradonna’ who actually lived up to the billing and the man Andy Gray disturbingly loves to refer to as the ‘little’ something or another – Lionel Messi. Alongside him were the high-king and high-prince of tikka-takka, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. FCB also boast the outstanding talents of the assassin David Villa, Gerard Pique, Dani Alves (Sid Lowe’s second best player in the world), Sergio Busquets, Carlos Puyol etc, etc, etc. Even their rubbish players are no slouches. Many consider the goalkeeper Victor Valdez to be Spain’s real ‘number 1’ and Eric Abidal has shown this season that rather than being Barca’s weakest defender he might actually be their best. There were eight current Barca players in Spain’s World Cup winning squad and all bar Valdez played in the final and let’s not forget this was the team that absolutely tonked the galactico’s of Madrid 5-0 earlier this season. The only question that remains is can they do it on a wet winter’s night against Stoke.

The current Manchester United squad may hardly be a vintage, but contrary to popular perception they are still a formidable bunch. In Vidic and Ferdinand United arguably have the best central defensive pairing in world football, while after a turbulent start to his Manchester United career, Patrice Evra has blossomed into one of the world’s best left-backs. Nani, may have enjoyed a more successful career as a synchronized diver, but he has shown that when he is in the mood, there are few better footballers out there. This season the Portuguese winger has scored 9 goals and has a Messiesque 14 assists. Then there are United’s evergreen veterans. In goal Edwin Van Der Sar is retiring at the end of the season in order to go out ‘at the top’, but as his recent FA Cup performance against Arsenal showed, to this day he remains a world class goalkeeper. Paul Scholes is still majestic in midfield (for half a match anyway), and Ryan Giggs continues to defy time, gravity and age. Up front, Javier Hernandez promises to become a Red’s legend while Berbatov still swings between being ‘Berbatop’ one moment to ‘Berbaflop’ the next and yet he has still floated his way to the top of the Premiership goal scoring table with 20, including that sublime hat-trick against Liverpool. Oh, and the fantastic Danny Wellbeck is having the season of his life on loan at Sunderland. And what of ‘our Wayne’ – sure he has had a torrid time since his injury against Bayern Munich – before that, however, the former Everton prodigy truly was out of this world, a tour de force for United for the bulk of last season. Rooney scored 26 goals in the last campaign, 14 more than his nearest challenger and won both player of the year awards. Until 2009, the Old Trafford outfit also enjoyed the services of one Christiano Ronaldo – the first player ever to win the FIFA World Player of Year Award while playing for an English club. Enough said.

After the Champions League draw was made many people were tipping the winners of the tie between Chelsea and Manchester United to easily reach the final – after all they would only have to overcome the likely challenge of Inter. Yes Inter have not been as good as they were last year – but their playing staff is still among the very best in the world. The Spine of the team is frightening and quite possibly the best out there; Julio Cesar, Walter Samuel, Esteban Cambiasso and Samuel Eto’o. And taxi or no taxi, Maicon is very much the finest right-back currently plying his trade. Not to mention the best individual player of the past year Wesley Sneijder who marked his arrival in Milan with two glorious free-kicks against Sienna on his debut. The Dutchman spearheaded Inter’s charge to the treble last year and was the fulcrum of the Netherlands team that reached the World Cup final. His display against Chelsea in the Champions League last season was perhaps the standout performance of 2010. Criminally overlooked for the final shortlist of the Ballon dO’r, Sneijdar still finished third in backpagefootball’s greatest players countdown. Not bad for a Madrid reject. And of course, Captain fantastic Javier Zanetti. Now into his 37thyear, Inter’s oldest and most loyal servant shows no signs of slowing down. He is sometimes describes as Inter’s Paulo Maldini, but to refer to his in such a way would be to do a grave injustice to man who is a legend in his own right.

The Managers

If Jose Mourinho is the special one then Pep Guardiola is the ‘great one’ the ‘magnificent one’ and the ‘extraordinary one’ all rolled into, you guessed it, one. After two trophy less seasons under former boss Frank Rijkaard, Barca turned to their youth team coach and a man who had served them with such distinction as a player to bring back the good times to Catalunia. In some quarters the decision was met with derision, one Spanish newspaper ran a picture of a photo-shopped Barca team with Maurinho as the manager and a host of new signings under the headline – ‘What could have been?’ Well what has been is that Guadiola has molded a team that many are calling the greatest of all time. 9 trophies in his first two seasons in charge; a perfect record against Madrid including a 6-3 victory at the Bernabeu and of course that 5-0, and it is easy to see why the Catalonian press sees Pep as the real ‘legend’ of this side. In an article for the Observer recently, Sid Lowe shared this insight:

“When he was offered the job in 2008, Guardiola asked his assistant, Tito Vilanova, if they were really ready. “Well,” came the reply, “you certainly are.””

Questions still linger about Pep’s managerial abilities; will he be able to transfer his philosophy while managing another club? Does he have a plan B? Is he tactically naive? Only time can tell , but even if Guadiola never wins a single trophy ever again he has achieved more in three short years than most managers do in a lifetime.

What more is there to be said about old ‘blue nose’, Sir Alex Ferguson. 46 major trophies in a managerial career spanning almost four decades make Fergie the most successful British manager in the history of the game. But it is the facts behind the statistics that really underscore his greatness. The last manager to lead a team to the Scottish title other than Celtic and Rangers; the last manager to lead a Scottish team to a European trophy full stop; the first manager to win a title with Manchester United in 26 years; the first manager to win three doubles with an English club; the first manager to win the treble with an English club; the first manager to lead an English club side to two hat-trick of titles; the first manager to win ten league titles with any club; the only manager to have won nine domestic cups with any club; the manager to have masterminded the most last-minute victories in English league history (it’s just ridiculous); and perhaps the manager to lead a team to an unprecedented 19th English league title and thereby firmly knock Liverpool ‘off their perch’. Love him or loathe him, what is for certain is that while Sir Alex is at the helm, United will remain a formidable force in world football.

At Inter, Leonardo’s case is a curious one, he has only just taken over at the club following the disastrous reign of Rafa Benitez and is still very much a novice to the managerial game. Many doubt that the articulate and thoughtful Brazilian has the required credentials it takes to become a top class manager and see him more suitable to a director of football role. However, the doubters might want to think again. Despite a turbulent start and 4-0 defeat to current employers Inter, Leonardo’s solitary season in charge of AC Milan was not as catastrophic as many would believe. In the most trying of circumstances and the continual meddling of owner Silvio Berlesconni, he still managed to lead AC to second place in the league and masterminded a remarkable 3-2 away against Real Madrid in the Champions League group stages and a 3-0 victory over Juventus at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Since taking over at Inter the former world cup winner has taken a team languishing in seventh place in the league to within two points of the top. Not too shabby for a man who supposedly can’t manage.

There you have it folks. Madrid might go onto win the Champions League, Primera Liga, and the Spanish cup, United might suffer a spectacular collapse in the Premier League title race and Leonardo might prove to be an amicable Brazilian who just is not cut out to be a first team coach – but what is irrefutable is that over the past three years, Barcelona, Manchester United and Inter have dominated the European and World footballing landscape.

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply