27 April ~ The most oxymoronically useless statement in the history of football analysis is probably the most common: "So, are they deserved champions?" Unless it's Stasi-sponsored Dynamo Berlin intimidating their way to ten straight Oberligen in the 1980s there's never any need for further discussion about "deserving" once the medals have been dished out – tournaments, leagues, cups and competitions are there to settle who's best. The problem with tonight's Champions League semi-final, however, is that it's only one facet of a much wider competition currently being contested by Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Loud claims are being made for this Barça team to be the greatest side in the annals of the game. Last week's Copa del Rey defeat should, in that case, be little more than one slightly soiled bit of red-blue bunting on their overall achievement. That they lost the Spanish Cup final to tonight's opposition could, however, prove a telling psychological blow before this legacy-defining game between the two. Real Madrid have twice won five straight titles – Barcelona's best is four in a row and they're presently homing in on a league treble. Real have been champions of Europe more often than anyone else and, back in the day, won the European Cup five years on the bounce. Barça have never even retained the thing.
Man Utd fans, taunted by Liverpool in the mid-1990s for their paltry number of league titles and European trophies, know that you have to keep up with the shifting focus. Dominate for too long in any competition and the argument goes historical. That's the Spanish contest I'm watching tonight. La Liga 2010-11 is over and the "all-time" stuff is always more dramatic for the neutral. Most of all though, their ability to achieve the truly historic will give the final verdict on this Barcelona team. The image they're cultivating, as the football team "playing the game as it should be played", is insulting. Not because they aren't mesmeric to watch at times but because (a) their retention of the ball in their own half is just as de facto defensive as old-school catenaccio and (b) their style is sold as being "home-grown", and therefore purer. In fact, David Villa came from Valencia for €40 million (£35m), Brazilian Dani Alves is the world's most expensive defender, compatriot Adriano had a €90m buy-out clause inserted in his contract and Argentina's Lionel Messi is worth over €100m, and will undoubtedly command commensurate wages.
Barcelona can afford to preach a passing style to their youths because the first team will always employ mega-stars who can augment it. If my club's home games had been watched by crowds of 90,000 for half a century then I'd expect the resultant infrastructure to produce a Xavi or an Andrés Iniesta a little more often. But I can get past all that "more than a club" hypocrisy if Barça can come good on the promise of their undoubtedly world class play. As with every England World Cup team in May, Pep Guardiola's charges are being talked of as if their potential has already been realised. The fact that this Barça side don't always score as many goals as they should is actually what gives me hope they might not burn out the way Holland 1974, Brazil 1982, Ajax 1995 and Arsenal 2002-present did. Remove Messi and you have the core of a Spain team which won the World Cup scoring only eight goals. That speaks of backbone. But the only true arbiter of the kind of epic greatness being thrown at this particular Barça side is winning stuff other teams haven't.
How can you be the greatest team in the history of the planet when you're not even the best Spain's known? Two Champions League titles in three years as they switched from Frank Rijkaard to Guardiola is great. But if this is even the greatest Barça team of all time (Johan Cruyff's "Dream Team" won the 1992 European Cup and then, two years later, was destroyed in the final by the only truly legendary epic side of my adult life – the Sacchi-Capello Milan of 1989-95) then they will automatically be thrown into a head-to-head with Real's greatest ever side. Real have been champions of Europe more times than anyone while Barça have won the Fairs Cup and the Cup-Winners Cup more than any other club. Sometimes it feels as if European competition was invented purely because the Iberian peninsula alone couldn't contain this colossal domestic rivalry.
Right now Barça are on the cusp of three Champions League titles in six years, almost mirroring the feat of Real's second-greatest side, los galácticos, from 1998-2002. But if they want a first, if they want to live up to the hype, Barça must at least become the first club ever to retain the rebranded, extended European Cup. Any kind of loss tonight, even though away from home, would cast further doubt on them even reaching stage one. Suddenly José Mourinho would be the history man, on the cusp of winning the European Cup with three different clubs. And, worst of all, a Barça elimination would allow more strangled metaphors about Guardiola's backache and the weight of history pressing down on Barça's spine. Nobody "deserves" that. Alex Anderson