5. Inter Milan, 2010
Jose Mourinho’s second European Cup victory perfectly summed up his management style – Inter were defensively solid and ruthless on the counter-attack. Many remember their incredible bus-parking exercise at the Camp Nou in the semi-final second leg, but Inter were also capable of attacking with power and pace. Their 3-1 first leg victory was arguably the most impressive dismantling of Guardiola-era Barcelona, while their convincing destruction of Mourinho’s former club Chelsea confirmed Wesley Sneijder’s brief status as Europe’s most dangerous attacking midfielder.
Mourinho could switch between defence and attack without altering the identity of his players – in theory, Sneijder behind Samuel Eto’o, Diego Milito and Goran Pandev was an absurdly adventurous quartet. However, Mourinho managed to persuade Eto’o and Pandev, both centre-forwards by trade, to drop back into extremely deep midfield positions, so Inter could be either 4-2-1-3 or 4-4-1-1 in Europe, despite favouring 4-3-1-2 in Serie A. Sneijder’s relationship with Milito was always key to their quick attacking.
Defensively, Walter Samuel and Lucio were happier the deeper they could play – they were fantastic in the air but vulnerable on the ground, especially as Mourinho barely rotated in the final weeks of the season, tiring his players. That was partly what encouraged him to become increasingly defensive in the last couple of months, but over the course of 2009/10, Inter were highly adaptable.
4. Real Madrid, 2000
They won the competition two years later with the talents of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, and Claude Makelele desperately holding the midfield together – but their 2000 side was arguably a more cohesive team overall.
There was no need for a Makelele, because Vicente del Bosque used a fine central midfield partnership featuring two players who could both attack and defend. Steve McManaman played a crucial role, but Fernando Redondo was the real star of the side, a tactically perfect player who consistently dominated midfield zones, and who performed more consistently for Real than any ‘Galactico’ ever managed.
The balance Del Bosque found for the latter stages of the tournament was perfect – a 3-4-1-2 with Ivan Helguera as the sweeper, allowing both Roberto Carlos and Michel Salgado to play as rampaging wing-backs, rather than nervous full-backs. It also meant the use of Raul in a withdrawn position – in the final, he played behind Fernando Morientes and (an admittedly disappointing) Nicolas Anelka, a perfect combination of aerial height and raw pace. This wasn’t the most flash Real Madrid side, but there was a sense of efficiency they’ve failed to replicate since.
3. Manchester United, 2008
Cristiano Ronaldo-era Manchester United was surely the best team Sir Alex Ferguson has created. In terms of attacking talent, a rotating trio of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez was brilliantly mobile and stunning on the counter-attack, while the rare times when Ferguson could pick Owen Hargreaves, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick created a commanding midfield combination. At the back, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand comprised the best centre-back partnership in the world, while Edwin van der Sar re-emerged as one of the continent’s best goalkeepers.
Manchester United’s 2-0 away win at Roma wasn’t as spectacular as their 7-1 victory the previous campaign, but it was one of their finest European performances under Ferguson. They were disciplined at the back and energetic on the break, best summed up by Cristiano Ronaldo’s astonishing leap to head in the opener, the type of goal that confirmed he had developed into the world’s greatest player.
Ferguson’s only regret must be that United failed to put on a performance in the final against Chelsea – eventually winning the contest on penalties, with John Terry’s miss more famous than any great United attacking play. Like in 1999, United had a supremely strong side, but triumphed by the narrowest of margins, summing up their fighting spirit and their never-say-die attitude more than their technical quality.
2. Porto, 2004
This was the year of the underdog – a semi-final line-up featuring Porto, Deportivo, Monaco and an emerging Chelsea side only a year into the Roman Abramovich era. Jose Mourinho took a group of previously individuals and turned them into world beaters. Ricardo Carvalho dominated the defence, while Paolo Ferreira and Nuno Valente did passable impressions of Cafu and Roberto Carlos out wide. Of course, they were even better as a unit – their offside trap was brilliantly drilled throughout the competition.
The combination of Maniche and Costinha controlled the tempo and spread the play effectively to the flanks, while the star of the side was Deco, orchestrating the play from a classic number ten position, storming forward on the counter-attack – most famously for the second goal against Monaco in the final.
Their victory depended on fine margins – Paul Scholes wrongly had a goal disallowed in their 1-1 draw at Old Trafford, and they depended on a late goalkeeping mistake for Costinha’s goal. But equally, they played brilliant football – their 4-2 aggregate thrashing of a tremendous Lyon side set out their ambitions, while winning 1-0 away at Depor’s Riazor stadium was, at the time, an incredible result.
1. Barcelona, 2011
Their 2009 side won more – the Copa del Rey as well as the European Cup and La Liga – and had bigger stars, with Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry creating a brilliant forward trio alongside Lionel Messi. However, the 2011 side was more cohesive – David Villa and Pedro Rodriguez played on the flanks and allowed Messi to dominate the side, while the introduction of Sergio Busquets in place of Yaya Toure gave Barcelona more positional discipline and passing quality in midfield.
There was also a greater emphasis upon pressing – in 2009 Barcelona were relatively passive without the ball, dropping back into their own half in the final against Manchester United. Two years later they’d become highly effective at starving the opposition of possession – and while their sheer energy without the ball has rightly received great praise, Barcelona’s defensively positioning and ability to ‘pass on’ opponents up the pitch as they went chasing the ball was tremendous.
It’s been said many times before – but it’s worth repeating – that Barcelona’s three forwards scored in the 2011 final and their three midfielders – Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta – all recorded assists. At that time, they possessed the three players who had finished first, second and third in the Ballon D’Or – but remained a unit rather than a collection of individuals. It was the peak of Guardiola’s period, probably the peak of Barcelona’s football history, and maybe the greatest club side of all time.
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