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May 26, 2011

Cruyff builds his Dream Team

On Saturday, Barcelona return to Wembley for the first time (not counting a 2009 pre-season tournament) since they lifted their maiden European Cup in 1992 under the management of the great Johan Cruyff.

Legendary Barcelona player Johan Cruyff returned to the Nou Camp in 1988 to take over the managerial reins from Luis Aragones. The result of his eight-year spell would be an 11-trophy haul, but the change in philosophy that the Dutchman brought with him would have far-reaching implications for the Catalan outfit and Cruyff's success would see his side nicknamed 'The Dream Team'. As well as cementing his place as Barcelona's longest serving manager, Cruyff would also become the most decorated boss in the history of the Nou Camp, but it would be the lifting of the European Cup in 1992 that would begin the club's rise to be among the world's best.

Ahead of the 1991-92 season, Barcelona fans had raised the expectation levels for the side to win the first European Cup in their history. Spain's interest in the competition had, thus far, been dominated by the Real Madrid team of the late '50s that won the trophy five years in a row after its inauguration in 1956. Led by the likes of Alfredo Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Francisco Gento, Madrid set the competition alight in its early years and Barcelona were never able to mount so much as a challenge until the turn of the decade.

In 1961, Barca became the first team to beat Madrid in Europe thanks to an inspired performance from Catalan hero Laszlo Kubala in the semi-final, but lost 3-2 to Benfica in Bern and did not make another final until 1986 when, under the leadership of Terry Venables, they played out what was described by The Daily Mail's Steve Curry as a ''negative, dreary stalemate'' with Steaua Bucharest - a game in which six out of eight penalties were missed in the shootout for the Romanians to eventually triumph 2-0.

With that poor history behind them, hopes were raised after Cruyff's Barcelona won the 1990-91 Primera Division title (their first for six years) by ten points from Atletico Madrid. The Dutchman had infused local and foreign talent into his side with the likes of Josep Guardiola and Albert Ferrer playing alongside Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov - and there was a real buzz about the team as they began a European Cup campaign that did not include favourites AC Milan (banned for refusing to continue a game disrupted by floodlight failure against Marseille the previous year) and with defending champions Red Star Belgrade forced to play their home games away from Belgrade due to the war in Yugoslavia.

Yet, despite the favourable conditions, Barca began in uncharacteristic fashion. The first round of the competition saw them beat East Germany's Hansa Rostock 3-0, thanks to a Laudrup inspired performance in the first leg, but they lost the second 1-0. The second round also saw them stutter against West German champions Kaiserslautern, easing to a 2-0 win at home, before going behind 3-2 on aggregate in the return leg and they needed Jose Mari Bakero to save the day with a 90th minute strike that ensured they went through on away goals by the skin of their teeth. It was a hugely important moment and, recently, former Barca president Joan Laporta even labelled Bakero's intervention one of the most important moments in the club's history - alongside Andres Iniesta's late equaliser against Chelsea in 2009 and a 5-0 win in 1974 at Real Madrid.

Bakero's goal put Barcelona on course for glory, lifted their spirits and they carried some excellent home form into a group stage that contained Benfica, Dynamo Kiev and Sparta Prague, as Hristo Stoichkov's four goals in the six games ensured progression to the final. [In 1992, the two early rounds were followed by a Group Stage split into two groups of four, the winners of which met in the final.]

In front of just over 70,000 at Wembley, the Catalans faced a similar Sampdoria side to that they had beaten 2-0 in the Cup Winners' Cup final of 1989 and one that still boasted the talent of Gianluca Vialli, Roberto Mancini, Toninho Cerezo and goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca.

Up against Samp's ''contain and counter attack'' style, the polished, possession football of the Catalans brought quality to the final, but Cruyff's fears over the pressure of the occasion were well founded. He had said before the game: ''This is the third time Barcelona have reached the final, but they have never won it and that is not good enough for a club like this. We are expected to win it this time and that, in itself, is a pressure that makes winning all the more difficult.''

And difficult it was. In 90 minutes of exhilarating but goalless action, Julio Salinas carved a gilt-edged chance only to be denied dramatically by Gianluca Pagliuca and the ''probing, positive and penetrating'' Stoichkov hit a post, but it was the Italians who had the best chances. Twice Gianluca Vialli could have given Samp the lead, but twice in the space of five second half minutes, he was unable to score when put in a superb position. The first saw him scoop over from six yards out after an Attilio Lombardo centre, while the second saw him miss the post by just a foot after having been released by Mancini.

But the turning point came deep into extra-time, after 112 minutes; Eusebio Sacristan earned a fortuitous free-kick after a tangle with Giovanni Invernizzi just outside the box. German referee Aron Schmidhuber was hounded by five Italians, yet the decision stood and Samp manager Vujadin Boskov held his towel-covered head in his hands as Stoichkov, Bakero and a Dutch defender who Cruyff had worked with briefly at Ajax, Ronald Koeman, stood over the free-kick.

Stoichkov, impressive throughout, rolled the ball with the sole of his boot to Bakero who stopped it dead, allowing Koeman to unleash a right-foot rocket, through three advancing defenders, low into the corner past the despairing Pagliuca. Koeman took off in celebration as Cruyff, somewhat uncharacteristically for such a graceful performer on the pitch, attempted to hurdle an advertising board on the sidelines.

Just over eight minutes later, Cruyff found his goalscorer to embrace on the pitch as Schmidhuber sounded his final whistle. Club captain Alexanco - wearing the No. 4 shirt of Koeman - walked up the steps to lift the trophy, after making a brief appearance as a sub, and history was made.

The next day, under headlines like 'The Culture Club', Barcelona were hailed for their expansive possession game. It was the beginning of their ascent into football folklore and their players were rightly given the praise they deserved, most notably a youngster by the name of Pep Guardiola who was described as: ''A young midfielder of the vision and appreciation of space Graham Taylor [then-England boss] has spent the last two years seeking.''

Guardiola would evolve into one of the world's best players under Cruyff, so it is perhaps fitting that his words as a manager sum up the impact that the Dutchman had on Barcelona's history: "They were pioneers and we cannot compete with that no matter how many trophies we win,'' he said. ''We will never equal the period of the Dream Team as they were the first to break up the long period without success. [Louis] Van Gaal, [Frank] Rijkaard and I have added things but none of this would have happened without the Dream Team."

What happened next? Barcelona continued to find success domestically and won four straight La Liga titles under Cruyff to cement their place as one of the finest Spanish teams ever, however their next appearance in the final of the European Cup (by then rebranded the Champions League) was not a pleasant one as they lost 4-0 to AC Milan at the Olympic Stadium in Athens in 1994. Cruyff left a year later under something of a cloud and eventually Guardiola took over the running of the team in 2008, winning the Champions League at his first attempt with a 2-0 win over Manchester Utd in Rome and quickly rising to become the second most successful coach in the club's history.

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