By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
Is this current Barcelona side the finest to have graced top-flight football in Spain?
Barca have won La Liga 22 times and, statistically, Tito's team may yet go down as the greatest of all those special sides. Vilanova's men came from behind to beat Atletico Madrid 2-1 at the Vicente Calderon on Sunday and remain on course to claim 100 points (and equal Real's record from last season). They have also already netted 107 times, a new mark for the Catalan club in the Primera Division. Statistics, however, do not paint the entire picture, nor tell the whole story.
Pep Guardiola's great title-winning teams of 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 claimed 87, 99 and 95 points, respectively. But by winning their last three games in the Primera Division, Vilanova's version can eclipse those superb sides. So does that make the current crew better than Pep's posse?
"Fasten your seatbelts," Guardiola said in his very first press conference. "Because we are going to enjoy the ride." They did. Barca lost their opening league game under Pep with a 1-0 reverse at Numancia before a 1-1 draw at home to Racing Santander, but the rollercoaster ride soon started.
Ronaldinho and Deco were moved on in the summer of 2008 as Samuel Eto'o stayed to form a fantastic front three with Thierry Henry on the left and Lionel Messi on the right. And even though the Argentine has since switched to a central role which has seen his goalscoring stats reach amazing new heights, this trio remains arguably the finest forward line in the timeline of this era-defining equipo.
|BARCA'S LAST FOUR LIGA WINNERS
| 87 points (105 goals)
99 games (98 goals)
95 games (96 goals)
91 points (107 goals)*
* three games left
There were fewer Primera Division points (87) than in subsequent seasons, yet Guardiola's side had been finding their feet in the first two fixtures and the coach fielded fringe players and youngsters for the last four league games (which yielded just two points) as Barca prepared for the finals of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. La Liga was won prior to that, though, and all but confirmed by the Catalans' brilliant 6-2 win at Madrid on May 2.
In 2009-10, Pep's team picked up even more points (99), adding another Liga triumph as Zlatan Ibrahimovic replaced Eto'o. Dominant in La Liga, Barca also added the Club World Cup, the Spanish Supercopa and Uefa Super Cup to win six titles out of six in their coach's first 18 months, but the Catalans missed out in the Copa del Rey to Sevilla in the last eight and were beaten by Inter in the semi-finals of the Champions League. By then, the relationship between Pep and Ibrahimovic had soured, while Henry's form was well below the Frenchman's finest from the previous campaign. Indeed, it was during this term when Guardiola decided that Messi had to play in the centre.
Ibrahimovic duly departed and David Villa was signed as his replacement, but the Spain striker was forced to play on the left with Messi in the middle. The former Valencia forward adapted well to his new role and while he has never looked entirely comfortable out wide, his understanding with the Argentine brought goals galore (53 in all competitions for Leo, 23 for Villa and 22 for Pedro) and plenty of success for the Catalan club. In La Liga, it was an even more successful season as Barca lost just twice, produced perhaps their most memorable display under Pep with a 5-0 thrashing of Jose Mourinho's Madrid and claimed 99 points in all - and it could easily have been over 100 had Guardiola fielded a full-strength side against Deportivo La Coruna in the team's last home match, which ended goalless. Instead, players were reserved for the Champions League final date with Manchester United.
|We have had an exceptional league campaign - 10 out of 10. The season was nearly perfect for us and we put in a brutal effort
- Gerard Pique
Ahead of that Wembley showpiece, Guardiola claimed he hoped his side would play even better than they had done in the 2009 final, also against Sir Alex Ferguson's side, which the Catalans won 2-0. And they did. A stunning 3-1 victory left the Scot in awe of Barca's brilliance. This was another high point in Pep's reign: the midfield trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets had evolved since that first season, while Villa, Messi and Pedro provided the goals in the front three.
Still, however, the forward line looked less complete than the class of 2008-09. Villa suffered a broken leg last term, Pedro a loss of form and the team became too reliant upon Messi, a problem which still persists today. Injuries to Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, indifferent displays from Dani Alves and the the health problems suffered by Eric Abidal have hit Barcelona hard over the last two seasons, too. This term, Vilanova has been able to motivate his players where Pep had struggled to do so in his last campaign, yet Barca have slipped up against the bigger teams (with three defeats against Madrid in all, two versus Bayern Munich and one in Milan) and La Liga looks comparatively weaker overall as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
Indeed, the 7-0 humbling over two games against Bayern is a loss which seems hard to imagine had Pep still been in charge. So while this Barca team remains on course to equal Madrid's points record from last term and become the Catalans' finest in the history of La Liga, Guardiola's great sides still have the edge overall - whatever the stats say.
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