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Football's Greatest Club Teams

5. Bayern Munich 1971-76

When the argument about the greatest club sides arises, one of the most frequent names mentioned is Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan. And yet, as thoroughly convincing as they were in some keynote games, their overall record is much more open to debate. Because, while Bayern Munich's individual performances never quite reached the level of Milan's narrow peak, you could never say the Germans didn't convince in a broader sense. In short, the Bundesliga aristocrats achieved club football's two gold-standard feats: three domestic titles in a row, overlapped by three European Cups in a row. And even though Bayern did not seem as entertaining as their Bundesliga rivals Borussia Monchengladbach, nor as evolved as their continental predecessors Ajax, they did match both in other ways. For a start, Bayern always outscored Monchengladbach. Indeed, Gerd Muller often outscored most teams in Europe by himself. Secondly, they provided Germany's answer to Total Football, while Franz Beckenbauer - most notably - added a dynamic attacking dimension to the libero role. Most tellingly, though, this team set the stereotype for German resolve. Sure, they may have enjoyed a lot of fortune in their European Cup finals. In 1974, they were a minute from defeat against Atletico Madrid; in 1975, Leeds had a goal controversially disallowed; and, in 1976, Saint Etienne squandered a series of opportunities. But then that was the thing about Bayern: they never squandered theirs. All three sides were eventually overcome and, as a result, in a list like this, so were most teams from football history.

4. Barcelona 2008-11

For many, this Barcelona side are already the greatest team of all time. And, on a few levels, that's hard to dispute. First of all, there's the football. Most famously, the 5-0 win over Real Madrid illustrated the true potential of a team sport. It was a carnival of technique and cohesion. More impressively, they've sustained such a level of performance throughout entire league seasons and on the very highest stage - two Champions League finals. It's not just about the style either, there are also the stats. As we see virtually every week, Barcelona dominate the ball - and therefore games - like no other club side in history. All quarters asked, none given. That is the result of what is arguably the most seamless football pyramid ever seen. Below, Barca have the perfect youth infrastructure. Above, Pep Guardiola innately understands and enhances it. He's evolved their inherent passing philosophy with a vigorously implemented pressing game. And that has produced some extraordinary achievements. As well as winning Spain's first ever treble, Guardiola's Barcelona have delivered a domestic three-in-a-row and two Champions Leagues in three years. Along the way, they've also been Spain's most emphatic league winners in terms of points per game and provided the division's best ever defence. But that does not mean there aren't gaps. And one of the biggest came in the 2009-10 season. Had Andres Iniesta played against Inter (and had an Icelandic volcano stayed dormant while Barcelona won), then it is highly probably they would be at the top of this list. As it stands, they have yet to defend the Champions League. And, although the counter argument might be that this is the most competitive era since European football began, we're not looking for a side to merely conform to the standards of their time. We're looking at them to surpass those of football history. So far, Barcelona have astounded us with their play, with their philosophy and with their trophy haul. They just need to go one step further and astound us with what has been an impossible task for two decades: retain the European Cup.

3. Liverpool 1975-84

Whatever the fans sing about never walking alone, in England this team stands alone. Bill Shankly had first made Liverpool regular winners before Bob Paisley made them relentless winners. But, for all that victory defined this Liverpool, it was a defeat that created them. After losing both legs of a European Cup tie 2-1 to Red Star Belgrade, the boot room understood the need for a more patient, professional approach. "We realised it was no use winning the ball if you finished up on your backside," Paisley would later reveal. "The top Europeans showed us how to break out of defence effectively. The pace of their movement was dictated by their first pass. We had to learn how to be patient like that and think about the next two or three moves when we had the ball." It was a patience that created the platform for the longest - if not quite the most intense - spell of success in the European Cup's history. Over nine glory-drenched years, Liverpool won four European Cups and seven league titles. And all while Paisley and then Bob Fagan organically altered the team. Despite the emphasis on pass and move, though, the team's success was actually underpinned by maximum protection. Anfield produced what was statistically the best defence in English history. That did, however, lead to an occasional staleness that saw them twice knocked out of the European Cup in the first round and finish fifth in the 1980-81 championship. But only those aberrations keep them off the top. Otherwise, a lesson in longevity.

2. Real Madrid 1953-60

Bobby Charlton could only look to the supernatural. After the Busby Babes had been battered in the 1957 European Cup semi-final, he exasperated "these people are just not human. It's not the game that I've been taught". It was the kind of game, however, that brought the competition's greatest run of glory. Five successive European Cups culminated in the euphoria of the 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt. The next day, Hugh McIlvanney wrote in The Scotsman that the crowd "had not simply been entertained. They had been moved by the experience of seeing a sport played to its ultimate standards ... the fact [Real] were engaged in winning the European Cup for the fifth successive year seemed equally inevitable and incidental in the midst of the most magnificent sporting artistry." It's difficult to argue with McIlvanney's words and actually witnessing such events lends them an esoteric and ephemeral quality that harder truths can never match. In that way, though, the 1960 final was fitting. Just like with the very simple - and astounding - statistic that Real won the first five trophies, the sheer style of the 1960 final lent them a sheen that they only occasionally possessed. That record implies they were relentless, unconquerable winners. But reality argues otherwise. Alfredo Di Stefano's 1953 arrival did bring an immediate burst of league titles. But thereafter followed the paradox that Real were often Europe's best team without being Spain's. From 1958-60, for example, they were frequently embarrassed by Helenio Herrera's Barcelona. Real, however, won the clasico that really mattered: the 1959-60 European Cup semi-final. It proved enough to provide that unmatched fifth trophy, but not enough to finish first here.

1. Ajax 1965-73

As a title, Total Football didn't just fit the style but the success. For three exceptional years out of eight excellent ones, Ajax won virtually every trophy and every game. In doing so, they also went unbeaten through a European Cup, secured one of the highest points hauls in the history of any league and regularly scored over 100 goals a season. And all of this while a formidable Feyenoord team - themselves European champions in 1970 - breathed down their necks. But it wasn't just the numbers, it was also the nature of the performances. On occasion, Ajax seemed to test the very limits of the sport - appearing to experiment with the ball, space and time in the most exacting of matches. Most of all, there was the 1973 zenith in which they thrashed the team that would follow them, Bayern Munich, 4-0. That win was shortly before Johan Cruyff and others left and it emphasised that it wasn't any opposition that ended this all-conquering side's era but individual wanderlust. In that sense, as a team, they were almost unbeatable.
• Miguel Delaney is a freelance football journalist and owner of Football Pantheon. You can follow him on @DelaneyST

• ESPN's series on the greatest teams in sport is in partnership with Samsung Mobile Project Team Work.


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