The Greatest of All Time? – Stop, it’s not ready yet

Another day, another poor refereeing decision. Another English side out of a multi-national competition, another reason to blame it all on that cruel mistress injustice. Another Barcelona victory, another Messi brace and yet another reason to break out the comparatives, pop open the superlatives and make a big, fresh, juicy hyperbolic sandwich and wash it down with a satisfying gulp of over exaggeration.

While the apparent, but realistically non-controversy of Arsenal’s exit from the Champions League will, and has, dominated the back pages this week, an ever so slightly more controversial notion has not only slipped in unawares, but already been – or so it seems – cemented in the factual folklore of football. Totti thinks it. Graeme Souness thinks it. Even Jamie Redknapp thinks it, and he thinks it literally, which is at least two notches above Souness and Totti’s normal everyday thinking of it. We haven’t even been allowed to vote on it, and in this day and age of “I’m an X Celebrities Big Brother Get Me on the Telly” if we aren’t allowed to vote on it, it shouldn’t really count.

This notion is, of course, that the current Messi-led, Guardiola managed Barcelona side are the greatest club side in the history of football. Ever. Period.

I’m not suggesting that Barca circa ’09 aren’t one of the greatest club sides of all time. They’ve done more than enough to place themselves in the pantheon. Winning a treble is virtually an automatic access pass anyway.  Nor am I arguing that they aren’t the most consistently aesthetically beautiful team to ever wispishly float along grass like a herd of balletic ants fervently serving their footballing Queen. They probably are, certainly in my lifetime. They are an elegant and majestic side who I feel privileged to have seen live. But are they really indubitably the greatest side of all time? Led by the greatest player of all time, the impish, mother’s haircutted ’70s pixie child Lionel Messi? Weren’t we saying this this time last year, after their 4-1 demolition of Arsenal? Just before they were dispatched from the competition, quite authoritatively, by Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan? Since when did beating Arsenal become the pre-requisite for assuming all time greatness?

Manchester United beat Arsenal by the same 3-1 scoreline twice in succession. At the Emirates too.  Arsenal are a top side uniquely set up to suffer the occasional crushing defeat at the hands of their fellow high ranking big money teams. The fact that Barca could so effortlessly dismember them when they’re notoriously stubborn in their desire to play open and expansive, defensively rickety football, isn’t too much of a shock. West Brom did it earlier this very season. Does this mean West Brom, or indeed the current Manchester United side are possible contenders for the crown of the greatest domestic collective since time immemorial? No, of course not. In fact it’s likely that every Premier League side this term would suffer a similar fate when faced with this Barcelona team. But that is merely the very tip of my point. Who is there right now who can challenge them? And who is there to fairly compare them to?

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It’s been widely accepted that this year is a poor one for Premier League quality. Certainly by the lofty standards set in the last decade. Chelsea collapsed faster than a Chilean mine once Ray ‘Uncle Fester’ Wilkins had been scooted out the door and United have a midfield so lightweight you could barely role a cigarette in it. City and Spurs are still teething at the highest level and Liverpool are scrapping it out for the right to play in the Europa League next season, a competition so dismantled and devalued by its bigger European brother that the only thing it shares in any comparative sense with the Champions League is that neither of them are Leagues. In Italy the only remaining European combatant (in any competition) is the withered husk of Mourinho’s treble winners who languish 5 points below the creaking Milan side dumped out in the first knock out round by a team who play Steven Pienaar in midfield. And who already take an away goal disadvantage into their own second leg. Barca’s only reasonable competition – both domestically and abroad – come in the shape of the rag taggle bunch of allsorts at Real Madrid, a team who’ve failed to progress beyond the same round for the last six years and who despite being a full 13 points ahead of their nearest challengers, still reside only 7 points off the kings of Catalonia in La Liga.

My point here is how can we reasonably claim that Barca deserve this elevation in a time when they are so far and away the only consistent team in the whole top tier of the game? They’re the Mike Tyson of football. Great, but the greatest by default. The baddest men on a planet that has nothing to challenge them with.

Even in this state of play it’s not like they’ve swept all before them with consummate ease. Even in a particularly uncompetitive La Liga they’ve been outplayed by both Valencia and Villarreal. They remain a relative shadow of themselves away from home when seriously pressed and can, and have been beaten when people don’t stand off them and attempt to take them on at their own game. The AC Milan side of the late ’80s – early ’90s triumphed in an era when other sides – notably Barcelona themselves under the imperious Cruyff (the man whose philosophy imbued them with everything they’re feted for today) – legitimately challenged them for their status. And they vanquished this very foe by four goals in the final of 1994 to lift their 3rd trophy from their 4th final in only 6 seasons. Admittedly the competition is now stronger and harder to win, but what have this Barcelona done comparatively? They haven’t even reached consecutive finals yet.

And then there’s Messi, a microcosm for the hyperbole who has played his entire club career behind the titans of midfield creativity Xavi and Iniesta. Who has failed to lift a far better Argentina side than Maradona’s to anything near glory and yet whose already surpassed him in the eyes of many columnists, bloggers and fans as the greatest to shuffle with a ball. Yes he’s on track (and he is) and yes he’s scored 4 million goals this season, but so has Cristiano Ronaldo, and that’s more testament to the general lack of comparative strength (both home and abroad) than it is their amazing, self created FIFA Virtual Pro prowess. El Diego did it at Napoli and on the fleeting occasion he did play for Barcelona – a stint that saw him suffer from both hepatitis and a broken leg – he did it in a side that couldn’t even prize La Liga from Athletic Bilbao (and considering 51 of the 79 titles have been won by one of the Classico sides, that’s some indictment of how bad they were).

Once again, don’t get me wrong, Messi is a fabulous, once in a lifetime player who is well on course to be the greatest the game has seen, but he isn’t yet. And as with the team he plays for, there seems to be an uncalled for rush to place him, and them, at the front of the queue just because it’s in vogue right now.

Ali was the greatest because he fought Foreman, Frazier and Liston in their prime. Barcelona have failed to prove their undisputed crown in a similar manner. They may well, and they have all the tools to do it, and in fact I genuinely hope they do, for they are an exquisite team to watch, but until they do, can we all stop jumping the gun please? Or as Steve McClaren might say in a grolsch advert, “Schtop. It’s not ready yet.”

You can follow Oscar on Twitter here, where you can futilely attempt to disuade him from growing a moustache.

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