For 90 minutes at the weekend, all of us went back in time a couple of years, to a period when one football team so eclipsed all others that they were being considered not just the best side on the planet at that moment but one of the greatest ever to play the game.
The Barcelona side which won two Champions Leagues in three seasons, who in 2009 won all six trophies in which they were competing, and who’s side was filled with genuine winners, in particular the backbone of a Spanish international side which had done the same, were unconquerable on their day. Best team ever? I’d say so, yes.
From those heights the direction of travel was always going to be downward. No club could sustain that kind of success forever, and as the core of the team – Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol – began to age you could see the cracks begin to grow.
Guardiola knew it, and he wanted to leave on a high. That he went to a club with a similar ethos, but a younger squad overall, is barely surprising and he’s rebuilt the playing style and won over the critics who were initially sceptical. His Bayern Munich side is special, and capable of defeating anyone on the day, but I wonder if there are times when he ponders, a little wistfully, what’s going on in Catalonia right now.
Something special is happening there, and the proof of it rolled into Madrid on Saturday night. By the time they left the home fans were shell-shocked and Rafa Benitez, one of the game’s best managers and all-round Good Guy’s – was on the brink of the sack.
Barcelona were magnificent, looking again like they did back just six years ago. Without Messi in the starting line-up they simply tore their ancient rivals to pieces. Suarez and Neymar were sublime and the most lethal front pairing on the planet were joined by their third when their team was already three goals to the good. He quickly provided an assist for number four.
Has there ever, in the history of the game, been a greater strike-force than these three incredible, and very different, talents? There isn’t a central defence anywhere in world football that could cope with them on one of those days when they are all on fire, and even if one has an off-day – or simply injured, as the Argentine was – they can still be too much to handle.
For all that, this performance was stunning, principally because we don’t see this version of Barcelona quite so much these days. They’ve looked vulnerable at times too, such as in the shock 4-1 defeat they suffered at Celta Vigo back in September, as well as the 2-1 win Seville recorded over them last month. Even when they’ve been winning, as they have for much of the season, of course, the results and performances have often been less than stellar.
Saturday was spectacular. Saturday was special.
So is it a sign? Are we about to see another Barcelona side take the world by storm? That’s a difficult question to answer. The talent is there, and of that there’s no doubt at all, but this team still lacks the assurance and the consistency that legendry side did.
Nevertheless, this result appears to suggest that they’re heading back to their best if not quite entirely there yet. The prospect it throws up is intriguing; Guardiola’s Bayern look marvellous, especially at home, and if both sides can continue to grow in confidence and strength we may yet see the legendary midfielder return to the Camp Nou.
A match between these two sides would be a footballing masterclass the whole world would clamour to see.
As to where this result leaves Real Madrid, well today their board of directors has announced their faith – their “100% faith” in Rafa Benitez. This result leaves them in third, six points behind the Catalan giants and two behind local rivals Atletico. Five leagues wins out of twelve isn’t good enough and no-one will know it better than him.
The gulf between the two teams was extraordinary. Even that great Barcelona side had not secured such a comprehensive victory at the home of their rivals; their 5-0 demolishing of Madrid in 2010 was in front of a passionate Catalan support. This could have been five, and more.
In part, that was a measure of how poor Madrid’s start to the league campaign has been … but more than that, it’s a measure of how good this Barcelona side now is.
You get the impression they’re on the verge of true greatness again.