FOOTBALL may stall occasionally as an entertainment medium, but it never fails as a source for arguments.
The meeting of AC Milan and Barcelona in the Nou Camp tonight provides the provocation to stage another stab at one of the most persistent controversies: who is the greatest club team in the world ever? The Barcelona vintage of recent years has been routinely lauded as the best side ever to walk out on to a football park. This causes some confusion to those who would state that their present league position means they are merely the second-best team in Spain in 2012.
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The clamour for Barcelona to be awarded the title of The Greatest Ever is fuelled by their football, which is certainly pleasing on the eye, but also by their exposure through television.
The Real Madrid side of the late fifties and early sixties won five consecutive European Cups and had, beyond the argument of even the most obdurate supporter of the perceived superiority of contemporary football, two of the greatest players to kick a ball in the shape of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo di Stefano.
But this meeting of Milan and Barcelona stirs memories of a more recent side that has claims to being the best. The story of that team began on February 20, 1986, when entrepreneur Silvio Berlusconi bought AC Milan and saved it from bankruptcy.
Arrigo Sacchi was appointed manager, a typically idiosyncratic choice by Berlusconi. Sacchi, a mediocre player, was coach of Parma, then in Serie B, and had only just started his career as a manager. However, he had coached Parma to victory over Milan in the Coppa Italia. He dismissed fears about his pedigree as a coach by saying that a jockey did not have to have been a horse.
The Rossoneri became a team of thoroughbreds, romping to victory. They won eight domestic titles, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five European Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup.
More relevantly, they changed the face of football. Sacchi's style was revolutionary. He prized technically astute players but he demanded a work ethic. Milan's unrelenting pressing game made them extraordinarily difficult to combat. Their personnel made them prime contenders as The Greatest Ever.
Pep Guardiola, who instilled a tighter pressing game when he took over Barcelona in 2008, also has a team filled with talent.
They have still to match the achievements of the Milan side of the early nineties, but that may just be a matter of time. But the teams diverge on two crucial areas.
The first is that football is less crude in the modern era. Players are protected. This has been to the benefit of Barcelona who have physically slight players throughout the side.
The second is that Milan of 1990 vintage have claims to have greater players than Barcelona. An extraordinary argument? Of course, but consider this: how many of the present Barcelona team would be first picks for an All-Time World XI. Lionel Messi would certainly be a contender to start. But who else? There would be a modern campaign to include Andres Iniesta and Xavi in an all-time central midfield. The Spaniards have considerable merits but are they better players than Zinedine Zidane, Michel Platini, Josef Masopust, Johan Neeskens, Raymond Kopa or Zico?
The Barcelona defence does not have one viable contender for The Greatest Ever Team and, up front, such as David Villa and Alexis Sanchez are wonderful but not when compared to Pele, Maradona or, forgive my chauvinism, Denis Law. The Rossoneri of the early nineties, in contrast, had first picks for The Immortals. Can the following be taken as accepted truths?
There has never been a better left-back than Paolo Maldini. Franco Baresi would be inked in on any back four. Marco van Basten would either start or come off the bench up front. Ruud Gullitt, with his strength and technique, would be more than an option for any team and Frank Rijkaard does not have a superior in the holding midfield role.
The Rossoneri, in that glorious period, could sprinkle the genius of these players with the gold dust of such as Carlo Ancelotti, Alessandro Costacurta, Roberto Donadoni, Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic.
Milan of the past, then, surely win the argument over Barcelona of the present when it comes to the pre-eminence of their players. Barcelona, though, would surely claim they are a more cohesive, thrilling unit. They are strong favourites to frank that theory with a victory in the Camp Nou tonight.
Misty-eyed supporters of the Rossoneri, though, will remember a May night in Athens in 1994 when Milan defeated the Barcelona of Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario 4-0. Guardiola played that night. He may just have learned something.