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Which is the greatest team of all time?

Spain’s spectacular and masterful performance at the Euro 2012 final in Kiev has opened up a debate over which side; either club or international based is the greatest.

Total Football’s Simon Wright has decided to give his view on what he thinks are the six greatest teams to have ever graced the game of football, ranking 6-1 in reverse order. 

6. AC Milan 1988-1994

I begin this countdown by looking at one of the greatest European dynasties in history. AC Milan’s side in the late 80s and early 90s was full of awesome power, dazzling skills and players who knew how to play the beautiful game. Their desire saw them win three European Cups, including one of the greatest individual final performances ever.

It all started in 1986 when the club was on the verge on bankruptcy. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi rescued the side and invested huge sums of money. He also brought in Dutch trio Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard & Marco van Basten. Not only did these three players grace Euro 88, they started the Rossoneri on the trail towards their greatest period of success.

Under Arrigo Sacchi, they won their first Serie A title for nine years in 1988. They won three more championships, including going through the 1991-92 season undefeated. They also won back-to-back European Cups, dismantling Steaua Bucharest 4-0 in 1989 with two goals each from Gullit & Van Basten. A sole Rijkaard strike saw off Benfica the following year for a successful trophy defence.

After falling out with Van Basten, Sacchi was sacked and replaced by Fabio Capello in 1991 but success continued. Milan lost the first final of the newly titled Champions League to Marseille in 1993 but returned to the final the following year and a scintillating performance followed.

Against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, a team itself with the likes of Ronald Koeman, Romario and Hristo Stoickhov, Milan produced a performance of breathtaking quality in the 1994 Athens showpiece. Two goals from Daniele Massaro, an outrageous chip from Dejan Savicevic and a fourth from Marcel Desailly sealed a marvellous 4-0 triumph.

The ageing unit made the Vienna final in 1995 but lost to a late goal from a younger and fresher Ajax team and once Capello left, the decline started. More titles followed as has two more Champions League trophies but not on such a regular occurrence.

This was a period when the Italian game truly ruled club football.

HONOURS: Serie A - 1987-88, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1993-94, Supercoppa Italia – 1988, 1992, 1993, 1994, European Cup/Champions League – 1988-89, 1989-90, 1993-94, UEFA Super Cup – 1989, 1990, 1994, Intercontinental Cup – 1989, 1990

MANAGERS: Arrigo Sacchi 1987-1991, Fabio Capello 1991-1996

STAR PLAYERS: Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Roberto Donadoni, Carlo Ancelotti, Daniele Massaro, Dejan Savicevic, Marcel Desailly, Demetrio Albertini, Zvonimir Boban, Jean-Pierre Papin

5. Arsenal 2003-2004

A moment of significant history was achieved on Saturday May 15 2004. Arsenal beat Leicester City 2-1 at Highbury to complete an entire league season unbeaten.

P38, W26, D12, L0 was the official record for the Gunners, realising a dream that Arsene Wenger always had when he came to England from Japan in 1996. It was the first time since Preston North End in 1888 that a team had managed to achieve this feat in top flight English football.

The unbeaten run started with two late season wins in 2002/03 after losing out on the Premier League title to Manchester United. With United grooming youngsters and Roman Abramovich arriving at Chelsea to spend his millions, Wenger elected to stick with the current squad he had, except for Jens Lehmann replacing the departed David Seaman.

The team’s chemistry was second to none, the understanding of what each other could do was evident to see and the football they played was top class.

There were moments where the club didn’t win many fans, such as the ugly brawl at full-time in a league match at Old Trafford in September 2003 which saw record fines and five players banned for a combined total of 18 matches.

Whatever was thrown at the side, they dealt with and the addition of youngster Jose Antonio Reyes in the January transfer window just added to the immense talent on show in North London.

Even the youngsters reached the final four of the Carling Cup and although there was late season heartbreak with defeats to United and Chelsea in the FA Cup semis and Champions League quarter-finals respectively, they strolled past Liverpool and Leeds before wrapping up the title with a draw at of all places, White Hart Lane.

Thierry Henry was top scorer with 30 league goals and the unbeaten run stretched to 49 games until defeat at Old Trafford in October 2004. Although there was just one trophy, it is a feat that probably won’t be seen in English football again. The Arsenal class of 2003/04 truly go down as ‘The Untouchables.’

HONOURS: FA Premier League champions 2003-04

MANAGER: Arsene Wenger 1996 – PRESENT

STAR PLAYERS: Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure, Jens Lehmann, Dennis Bergkamp, Jose Antonio Reyes, Edu, Lauren, Gilberto, Freddie Ljungberg, Ray Parlour, Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord, Jeremie Aliadiere, Pascal Cygan

4. Manchester United 1998-1999

1998-99 will go down as the most successful season in the history of Manchester United. They won a historic treble, consisting of the Premier League, the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League.

Alex Ferguson was honoured with a knighthood for his remarkable achievement in a season that will always be remembered for the Red Devils.

They lost just four games all season, being knocked out of the Worthington Cup in the last eight by Tottenham Hotspur and three league losses at Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday and at home to Middlesbrough in December 1998.

Ferguson had strengthened his squad with the arrivals of Dutch defender Jaap Stam and goal machine Dwight Yorke. Together with Andy Cole, they formed the greatest striking partnership ever seen in Premier League history, with many defences terrified of the duo all season.

Backed up by the presence of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, it was a team full of genuine and proven quality. It was full of goals too.

Wimbledon lost 5-1 at Old Trafford in October 1998, Brondby were beaten 2-6 and 5-0 in the group stages of the Champions League and Nottingham Forest lost 1-8 at home to the Red Devils in February 1999, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scoring an amazing four goals in 18 minutes as a substitute!

The league was won on the last day at home to Tottenham, with goals from Beckham and Cole earning a 2-1 win and ensuring the title for the fifth time in seven seasons, one point clear of Arsenal. The FA Cup followed a week later, with strikes from Teddy Sheringham and Scholes comfortably seeing off a woeful Newcastle United at Wembley.

Then it was onto Barcelona and the Champions League final with Bayern Munich. Missing the suspended Keane and Scholes, the team were 1-0 down after only six minutes through a Mario Basler free-kick. The Germans hit the woodwork twice and it looked like time might be against the dream coming true for Ferguson.

Then in the 90th minute, substitute Sheringham reacted quickest to a mishit Giggs shot and directed an effort past Olivier Kahn for the equaliser. Seconds later, another corner was won against a tiring side. Beckham delivered, it was flicked on by Sheringham and touched in by another substitute, Solskjaer.

It was an incredible finish to an incredible season and ultimately, an incredible team.

HONOURS: FA Premier League champions 1998-99, FA Cup winners 1998-99, UEFA Champions League winners 1998-99

MANAGER: Sir Alex Ferguson 1986 – PRESENT

STAR PLAYERS: Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Peter Schmeichel, David Beckham, Roy Keane, Jaap Stam, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Teddy Sheringham, Henning Berg, Nicky Butt, Denis Irwin, Gary Neville, Ronny Johnsen, Phil Neville

3. Barcelona 2009-PRESENT

Barcelona had largely underachieved for two decades before Pep Guardiola took over as manager in the summer of 2008.

Frank Rijkaard had guided the Catalans to the Champions League in 2006 and there had been occasional La Liga titles but they were still seen as a beatable outfit, especially against the English sides.

Guardiola changed that and the style of football he encouraged the side to play not only took the breath away of fans visiting the Nou Camp but also in world football. He sold Ronaldinho to AC Milan and Deco to Chelsea, deciding to mould a team around Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. It turned into a masterful decision.

He won the treble in his very first season, including a demonstrative 2-0 success over Manchester United in the Champions League final in Rome. Messi become the greatest player in the world by some distance, breaking record after record, including become the club's top all-time goalscorer.

Only Real Madrid could compete and when Jose Mourinho’s men were blown away 5-0 in a La Liga match in the Nou Camp in November 2010, it proved that Guardiola’s team was the best around. It was revenge for him, after Mourinho had ended Barca’s Champions League defence the previous April with Inter Milan at the semi-final stage.

2010-11 brought another La Liga title and another European crown, with Ferguson’s Red Devils once again vanquished 3-1 at Wembley. Large sums of money were spent to bring in David Villa, Javier Mascherano, Alexis Sanchez and Cesc Fabregas but young talent was breaking through the ranks too. The likes of Pedro, Bojan and Adriano came through the highly rated youth academy.

Guardiola won his 12th trophy in just three years last August, with a 2-0 success in the UEFA Super Cup final against FC Porto and the total went up to 14 with triumph in the FIFA World Club Championship and the Copa del Rey. Sadly for the fans, Real Madrid finally usurped them in La Liga and a dogged defensive display from Chelsea denied them in the last four of the Champions League.

Guardiola has stepped down and been replaced by Tito Vilanova but many still believe that Barcelona are the greatest club side of all-time. I concur with these arguments, they play football out of this world and together with Madrid, will probably hold onto regular control of the continental club game for some time to come.

HONOURS: La Liga 2008-09, 2009-10, 2010-11, Copa del Rey 2008-09, 2011-12, Supercopa de Espana 2009, 2010, 2011, UEFA Champions League 2008-09, 2010-11, UEFA Super Cup 2009, 2011, FIFA World Club Championship 2009, 2011

MANAGER: Pep Guardiola 2008-2012, Tito Vilanova PRESENT

STAR PLAYERS: Lionel Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, David Villa, Pedro, Cesc Fabregas, Javier Mascherano, Sergio Busquets, Eric Abidal, Alexis Sanchez, Dani Alves, Adriano, Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Victor Valdes, Thierry Henry

2. Brazil 1970

Many have said throughout football history that the Brazilian squad of 1970 is the best ever to have taken to a football field. Pele was the star player but he was backed up by a team of fantastic individuals who played the game the way it should be. To rank them as no.2 has been an incredibly tough decision for me to make.

Although I wasn’t personally around at the time, I have seen plenty of footage of the side at its best during the 1970 FIFA World Cup in Mexico. Having won the trophy in 1958 and 1962, they had scores to settle after Pele had been kicked out of the tournament in England four years earlier.

They played exciting football, scoring 19 goals in six matches, contributing to six wins out of six. Jairzinho scored in every single match in the World Cup, still a record today. He notched seven in total, with Pele scoring four times himself. Only defending champions England restricted them to less than two in a game and that was down to some brilliance from Gordon Banks and Bobby Moore.

As they won the Jules Rimet trophy for a third time, the nation got to keep it for good, creating the current trophy we have in the present day. It is a fitting reward for a team that produced such brilliance on the pitch.

In the final itself, they saved the best until last with that unforgettable Carlos Alberto strike against Italy. The 4-1 scoreline could have been seen as a poor reflection on the Italians but the Brazilians were simply just playing on another planet.

For anyone growing up and wanting an example of the game of football when colour was just being invented, put a DVD on or type Brazil 1970 into YouTube – a side of sheer quality and sheer brilliance.

Watch Carlos Alberto talk about the 1970 final goal on YouTube

HONOURS: FIFA World Cup 1970

MANAGER: Mario Zagallo 1970-1974

STAR PLAYERS: Pele, Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Tostao, Rivelino, Gerson

1. Spain 2008-PRESENT

It is a great debate and these are a few reasons why I have decided the current Spanish team is the greatest of all time. 

  • They are a fantastic team with incredible strength in-depth and as the old saying goes; ‘Individuals don’t win football matches, teams do.’
  • They can play the beautiful game so well but also know how to grind out a result when the going gets tough.
  • They put aside potential club differences especially within the Real Madrid/Barcelona divide and put on a united front for their country.
  • They have shown sustained success at international level, which is very difficult to achieve.

It didn’t always used to be like this, as the Spanish regularly underachieved so pitifully when it came to the major competitions.

Quarter-finalists at World Cup 1986, 1994 and 2002, quarter-finalists at Euro 96 and Euro 2000, didn’t even exit the group stage at France 98 and Euro 2004 and when a Zinedine Zidane inspired France dumped them out of the last 16 stage at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the question soon arrived of if Spain could win anything again, not when.

That all changed in 2008 with a new style of playing football. Realising that the current squad wasn’t tough enough to compete, they adopted the passing style approach similar to Barcelona’s game which could bring the best out of Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Andres Iniesta.

Goalscoring royalty in Raul and Fernando Morientes were no longer considered and other talents who didn’t make the grade on the international stage were dropped like Joaquin, Jose Antonio Reyes and Luis Garcia.

Spain arrived at Euro 2008 and played some sparkling and attractive football. They topped their group with maximum points, gritted their way through a penalty shootout with world champions Italy in the last eight and a Fernando Torres goal in the final in Vienna was enough to beat Germany.

Xavi was named player of the tournament, David Villa ended as top scorer and the first major honour was secured since winning the Euros in 1964.

Luis Aragones left after Euro 2008 and was succeeded by Vicente del Bosque. Despite a shock Confederations Cup loss to the USA in 2009, they equalled a record held by Brazil of going 35 international matches unbeaten. They qualified with a 100 per cent record for the World Cup in South Africa and became one of the bookies favourites.

Now, it was expected that the Spanish would deliver but they lost 1-0 in their group H opener to unfancied Switzerland in Durban.

Previous teams would have imploded but they kept their cool and two wins over Honduras and Chile were enough to still top the group. Villa was in sensational form, ending the tournament with five goals and narrow victories in the knockout rounds got Spain to the Soccer City showpiece with Holland. It was a nasty final but Iniesta settled it in extra-time.

The team becoming the first European nation to win the World Cup outside of Europe and despite only scoring eight goals in the tournament, had built up a steady resolve and the ability to create the one chance required to breakdown the opposition.

Onto Euro 2012 where history was made and Spain became the first side to win three successive major international competitions.

They weren’t always at their best and played poorly in the group stages against Croatia but edged the game 1-0. That’s what makes champions. The performance in the final at the weekend was truly stunning.

It is a team with so much togetherness, skill and understanding. If they carry on like this, the rest of the world better watch out for the World Cup in 2014.

HONOURS: UEFA Euro 2008, FIFA World Cup 2010, UEFA Euro 2012

MANAGERS: Luis Aragones 2004-2008, Vicente del Bosque 2008-PRESENT

STAR PLAYERS: Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique, Carles Puyol, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, Sergio Ramos, David Silva, Jordi Alba, Marcos Senna, Joan Capdevilla, Juan Mata, Pedro

Tough decisions were made here but I think the current crop of Spanish players is the greatest team of all-time. Debates will rage on about this for a long while but you have to be judged on sustained success and this is what the Spain team since 2008 has managed to achieve with such flair and charisma.

By Simon Wright – Follow me on Twitter @Siwri88

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