10. Torino 1945-49
It’s not the tragedy of the Superga air disaster that brought this team such tributes. It was the scale of the triumphs. Torino won four successive titles in utterly emphatic manner, claiming still-unbroken scoring records. Their totals of 104 goals in 1946-47 and 125 in 1947-48 were astonishing even for the time.
One of the most memorable performances came in April 1946 when they were 6-0 up away to Roma after 19 minutes. Having eased off to win only 7-0, they were eventually applauded off the pitch by the home fans. It seemed only the beginning for a team that was going to win so much more. But, despite their premature demise, it is testament that all of their stats still stand up alongside the greatest of all time.
Trophies won: Serie A 1946, 1947, 1948, 1949
Managers: Luigi Ferrero, Mario Sperone, Egri Erbstein
Best XI: Bacigalupo, Ballarin, Maroso, Grezar, Rigamonti, Castigliano, Menti, Loik, Gabetto, Mazzola, Ossola
9. AC Milan 1991-95
Never as sublime as Sacchi’s Milan but, on the whole, more successful. Fabio Capello’s team reached three consecutive Champions League finals, winning one of them as well as three consecutive scudettos.
Although Capello used many of the same personnel as his predecessor, he drastically changed their style. Initially, that shift was imperceptible as Milan beat Lazio 6-3, Fiorentina 8-2 and defending champions Sampdoria 5-1 on the way to the 1992 title. Capello altered the way Milan approached games. And an emphasis on defensive discipline was soon as clear as the area around Sebastiano Rossi’s box.
In the 1993-94 season, Milan only conceded 15 league goals and provided the European Cup’s best ever defensive record. That came on the back of a 58-game unbeaten run and – for all the accusations of negativity – culminated in one of football’s most spectacular attacking displays as they demolished Barcelona 4-0 in the triumphant 1994 Champions League final.
“We played an almost perfect game,” Paolo Maldini would explain. “We completely stifled opponents and gave them almost nothing.”
In truth though, that final was unique. That same season, Milan had only scored 36 goals in 34 games. And, in the European showpieces either side, they failed to score as they lost both to Marseille and Ajax 1-0. It is possible that Capello’s minimalism ultimately cost them at the very, very highest level.
Trophies won: Champions League 1994; Serie A 1992, 1993, 1994; Champions League runners-up 1993, 1995
Managers: Fabio Capello
Best XI: Rossi; Tassotti, Maldini, Baresi, Costacurta; Donadoni, Desailly, Albertini, Boban, Savicevic, Simone
8. Celtic 1965-74
That Celtic’s nine consecutive titles came in the supposedly lower-status Scottish league need not extract from their legacy. Indeed, the fact they backed them up with frequent excursions to the European Cup’s latter stages should only add to the feat.
Most famously, Celtic echoed their utter dominance of Scotland with their swamping of Inter in the 1967 continental final. As the full-backs repeatedly outflanked the Inter defence, captain Armando Picchi apparently turned to goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti and – astonishingly – said “Just let it go. It’s pointless. Sooner or later they’ll get the winner.” Celtic’s siege had completely sapped their morale. As Tarcisio Burgnich later revealed “we did not want to prolong the agony”.
Many Scottish teams would have empathised. Through Stein’s staggering nine years, Celtic won a quadruple, another domestic treble, three other doubles and regularly scored over 100 league goals a season.
Their European record, perhaps, could have been equally emphatic. But Celtic lost in the 1972 and 1974 semi-finals and – ironically – let their guard down against Feyenoord in the 1970 final.
Their place in history was already assured, however, by the manner in which they vanquished Catenaccio for good.
Trophies won: European Cup 1967; Scottish league 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974; Scottish Cup 1967, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974; Scottish league cup 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970; European Cup runners-up 1970
Managers: Jock Stein
Best XI: Simpson; Craig, Gemmell, McNeill, Clark; Murdoch, Auld; Johnstone, Lennox, Wallace, Chalmers
7. Inter Milan 1962-67
Led by the ‘wizard’ Helenio Herrera, this Inter team clearly dabbled in black magic. In every sense. Aside from the aggressively negative football, there was also all manner of suspicion about bribery and more. Brian Glanville summed them up best in his history of the European Cup.
“Would Inter have won without the cheating and finagling which went on in the background? Such a question must forever tarnish their achievements. Nor was their style an endearing one. Yet their team bristled with fine players.”
And their trophy cabinet beamed with so much silverware. Over five years, Inter won three league titles, two consecutive European Cups and reached another semi-final and final. In a period when Catenaccio was king, their mastery of it was always going to make them Europe’s dominant team.
Once the tactic was rumbled, however, so were they.
Trophies won: European Cup 1964, 1965; Serie A 1963, 1965, 1966; European Cup runners-up 1967
Managers: Helenio Herrera
Best XI: Sarti; Burgnich, Facchetti, Picchi, Guarneri; Tagnin; Luis Suarez, Corso; Jair, Mazzola, Peiro
6. Benfica 1959-68
To a certain extent, the predecessors of Brazil 1970. Both sides’ attacking brilliance bookended the tactical cynicism of the ’60s.
The great Bela Guttmann created them, sacking 20 players on his arrival but promoting a core of brilliant youth players who would dominate Europe for two years and Portugal for the rest of the decade.
Chief among them was Eusebio, who arrived for the second European Cup. In that final, they came from 2-0 and 3-2 down to eventually overwhelm Real Madrid. Indeed, the manner in which Alfredo Di Stefano sought out hat-trick scorer Eusebio to give him his shirt after the game was seen as a symbolic passing of the torch.
It perhaps should have been, as Benfica certainly had the attack – if not quite the defence – to rack up trophies in the manner Real did. After the 1962 final, however, Guttmann fell out with the directors over payment. He promptly departed and supposedly left the club with a “curse” that they would never win another European Cup. Whatever the truth of that, the lack of his ingenuity ensured they lost the three subsequent finals they reached, robbing them of an even greater reputation.
Trophies won: European Cup 1961, 1962; Portuguese league 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1968; Portuguese Cup 1962, 1964; European Cup runners-up 1963, 1965, 1968
Managers: Bela Guttmann, Fernando Riera, Lajos Czeizler, Elek Schwartz, Fernando Cabrita
Best XI: Periera; Mario Joao, Germano, Angelo; Cavem, Cruz, Jose Augusto, Eusebio, Aguas, Coluna, Simoes
5. Bayern Munich 1971-76
The team that created the Bayern myth. But not just in terms of relentless domination. Also the infamous concept of Bayern-Dusel – luck.
Because, despite offering Germany’s answer to Total Football, this team was never quite as convincing as their magnificent achievements inferred. To a greater degree than many of the other great teams, they were a curious mix of fearsomeness and fortune.
Admittedly, there was an awful lot of fearsomeness. For a start, despite the fact that their great rivals Borussia Monchengladbach were routinely considered the more entertaining team, Bayern always outscored them. Gerd Muller, meanwhile, outscored most teams in Europe on his own. It was throughout this period he set a record by scoring 55 goals in a season.
That also helped Bayern set a Bundesliga record for the most points per game. It came in the midst of three titles in a row, with that achievement overlapped by Europe’s gold-standard feat: three European Cups in a row.
But it was also in that golden era of 1973-76, that they most profited from fortune. First off, they were lucky that the Ajax team who had demolished them 4-0 in the 1972-73 season had broken up so dramatically. And, in the following season’s final, they were a minute way from defeat to Atletico Madrid until Georg Schwarzenbeck – a defender who scored about a goal a season – swept home an unlikely equaliser. Bayern did pummel Atletico in the replay (the European Cup’s only one), but signs of decline were there.
In the following season they only finished 10th in the Bundesliga before benefitting from a very controversial offside call in the final against Leeds. And in 1976 they repeatedly benefited from the width of the woodwork as Saint Etienne squandered a series of opportunities.
To give Bayern their due though, they rarely did the same.
Trophies won: European Cup 1974, 1975, 1976; German league 1972, 1973, 1974
Managers: Udo Lattek, Dettmar Cramer
Best XI: Maier; Hansen, Schwarzenbeck, Beckenbauer, Breitner; Roth, Zobel, Hoeness, Rummenigge, Muller, Kapellmann
4. Barcelona 2008-11
As often as this Barcelona have transcended modern football, it is probably their performances against their oldest rivals that have best defined them.
Most impressively, the 5-0 win over Real Madrid in November 2010 illustrated the true potential of a team sport. It was a carnival of technique, a kaleidoscope of cohesion.
In the same season’s Champions League semi-final first leg, then, Leo Messi emphasised the individual excellence that comprises the team with his coruscating solo run. And that was complemented in the second leg by Pedro’s precise finish to another dizzying passing move.
Such performances, of course, have lead to talk of the greatest team of all time.
Certainly, it is highly possible that Pep Guardiola’s stewardship represents the highest possible peak of club football. As reflected by their play on the pitch, the club is perfectly synchronised with the former captain i charge. He represents the top of a seamless pyramid; an institution that’s almost organic rather than organised.
Because, at present, La Masia produces prototype players that perfectly fit the team’s approach. But then Guardiola has also enhanced that approach. He’s evolved their inherent passing philosophy with a vigorously implemented pressing game. In the rare periods of a match when Barcelona don’t have the ball, they work harder than any team to win it back. That stats show that no side in history has reclaimed the ball as often in the opposition half. And, obviously, no side in history has had such insane possession stats.
The end result, of course, is that the side play virtually every game on their own terms. And that has produced some extraordinary achievements. As well as winning Spain’s first ever treble, Guardiola’s Barcelona have won a three-in-a-row and two Champions Leagues in three short 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.
And for those that say that was down to the poverty of the Spanish league, they’ve beaten every Champions League knock-out opponent except Chelsea by more than two goals.
But such dynamism comes with extraordinary demands. For a start, the pressure on the obsessive Guardiola. Then there’s the fact that their unique philosophy makes it difficult for players to adapt. That has left them with a necessarily short squad and – occasionally – an overstretched one. Indeed, it was arguably that, above all, which cost them the 2010 Champions League – a trophy that would undoubtedly have put them top of this list. Unlike their rivals though, they still have time to rectify it.
Trophies won: Champions League 2009, 2011; Spanish league 2009, 2010, 2011; Spanish cup 2009
Managers: Pep Guardiola
Best XI: Valdes; Dani Alves, Abidal, Pique, Puyol; Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta; Pedro, Messi, Eto’o
3. Liverpool 1975-84
Whatever about walking alone, in England this team stands alone. Bill Shankly had first made Liverpool regular winners before Bob Paisley made them relentless winners.
For all that victory defined this team though, it was arguably a defeat that created them. After losing both legs of a European Cup tie 2-1 to Red Star Belgrade, the boot room acknowledged 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 Joe Fagan organically evolved and altered the team year on year.
Despite the emphasis in 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.
Trophies won: European Cup 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984; English league 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984; League Cup 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984; Uefa Cup 1976
Managers: Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan
Best XI: Clemence; Neal, A Kennedy, Hansen, Hughes; R Kennedy, Souness, McDermott, Heighway; Keegan, Dalglish
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 Hapden Park has ever seen.”
It’s difficult to argue with McIlvanney’s words. And, certainly, actually witnessing such events lends them an esoteric and ephemeral quality that broader truths can never match. In that way, the final was arguably as fitting as the flourish they finished the haul of five with. Just like the very simple – and astounding – statistic that Real won the first five trophies, the sheer style of that 1960 final lent them a sheen they only occasionally possessed.
The record implies they were relentless, unconquerable winners. But reality argues otherwise.
Such was astounding impact that Alfredo Di Stefano’s arrival in 1953 brought an immediate burst of league titles. But thereafter followed the paradox that Real were often Europe’s best side without being Spain’s. From 1958-60, for example, they were frequently embarrassed by Herrera’s Barcelona. Real, however, won the Clasico that really mattered: the 1959-60 semi-finals. It proved enough to give that unmatched fifth trophy. But not enough to finish first here.
Trophies won: European Cup 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960; Spanish league 1954, 1955, 1957, 1958
Managers: Enrique Fernandez, Jose Villalonga, Luis Carniglia, Miguel Munoz
Best XI: Dominguez, Marquitos, Santamaria, Pachin, Munoz; Zarraga, Kopa, Rial, Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento
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 breathed down their necks.
But it wasn’t just the numbers. It was the nature of the performances that brought them.
After Rinus Michels had first rescued the club from relegation and then immediately delivered a title, the first signs that something special was happening came in the second round of the 1965-66 European Cup. A disregarded Dutch team dismissed Bill Shankly’s Liverpool 5-1. At that point, Michels’s new techniques and alterations seemed minor. But they lead to major conclusions and results.
The path to perfection wasn’t without pain though. The 4-1 defeat to Milan in the 1969 European Cup final illustrated that neither the football nor the philosophy were complete. But, in the following season, it finally clicked. Until Milan 1994 and the current Barcelona, there had probably never been three European Cup finals as utterly emphatic as Ajax’s between 1971 and 1973. Total Football left them in total control.
Most of all, though, there was the 1973 peak 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 could ended this all-conquering team’s era but individual wanderlust.
Trophies won: European Cup 1971, 1972, 1973; Dutch league 1966, 1967, 1968, 1970, 1972, 1973; Dutch Cup 1967, 1970, 1971, 1972; European Cup runner-up 1969
Managers: Rinus Michels, Stefan Kovacs
Best XI: Stuy; Suurbier, Hulshoff, Vasovic, Krol; Neeskens, Haan, Muhren; Rep, Cruyff, Keizer