Sunday 26 January 2020

Comment: There are four great sides up alongside this Man City team - but who is the best ever?

Guardiola's men have reignited debate about greatest English side

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters
Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola. Photo: Carl Recine/Action Images via Reuters

Colin Young

When this Manchester City team lifts the Premier League trophy, it will reignite the debate about the best side to be crowned English League champions.

Supporters of Leeds, Arsenal, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham may disagree, but the main candidates from the pre-Premier League era, and proof football existed before 1993, are the Liverpool sides of the 1970s and '80s which romped to the title under Bob Paisley and Kenny Dalglish.

Then there is the Manchester United treble-winning side, one of 13 squads Alex Ferguson led to the English crown. Or can the Arsenal Invincibles, voted Best Team for the 20th anniversary of the Premier League, still claim that accolade?

Who would get your vote?

Liverpool 1978/79

P W D L F A Pts

42 30 8 4 85 16 68

Squad: Clemence, Ogrizovic, Hughes, Jones, Neal, Hansen, Thompson, A Kennedy, Irwin, Kettle, Callaghan, Case, Heighway, Lee, R Kennedy, McDermott, Sheedy, Souness, Fairclough, Johnson, Dalglish, Gayle

Top scorers: Dalglish 25, Johnson 13

The Liverpool side which lifted the club's 11th league title in 1979 was one of the best in their history, even though it achieved no success beyond the league championship.

Paisley's side won the league by some distance, achieving a then-record 68 points and an astonishing plus-69 goal difference. Keeper Ray Clemence kept 28 clean sheets in the 42-game league campaign, conceding just 16 goals in the season - and only four at Anfield.

This was Graeme Souness's first full season at Liverpool and with fellow Scots Dalglish and Alan Hansen in the side, the midfielder made an enormous contribution to Liverpool's record-breaking season. Dalglish was top scorer with 21 goals. But for all their dominance in the first division, Liverpool had no success in the cups that season.

They suffered a shock first-round exit from the League Cup in August at the hands of Sheffield United and were denied a league and cup double by Manchester United when they were knocked out of the FA Cup in a semi-final replay at Goodison Park, thanks to Jimmy Greenhoff's winner.

But the biggest blow to the season came in September when Nottingham Forest knocked them out of the European Cup in the first round. Brian Clough's side won the first leg at the City Ground 2-0 and ground out a goalless draw at Anfield to send holders Liverpool out. Forest went on to win the first of their two European Cups under Clough that season.

Liverpool 1987/88



Squad: Grobbelaar, Hooper, Ablett, Gillespie, Hansen, Lawrenson, Nicol, Staunton, Venison, Watson, Barnes, Dalglish, Houghton, Johnston, MacDonald, McMahon, Marsh, Whelan, Molby, Wark, Spackman, Seagraves, Beardsley, Aldridge, Walsh, Irvine, Durnin

Top scorers: Aldridge 29, Beardsley 15, Barnes 14

Although Liverpool won their first league and cup double in Dalglish's first season as player-manager two years earlier, the side he assembled to win the club's penultimate title two years later was arguably even better.

After losing his long-time strike partner Ian Rush to Juventus, and with plans to use himself sparingly, Dalglish replaced the club's record goalscorer with Ireland striker John Aldridge, who was later joined by his Oxford United and international team-mate Ray Houghton. They were complemented by Peter Beardsley, a shrewd British-record £1.9m signing from Newcastle, and the Scot completed his squad with John Barnes, who was named player of the season.

The goals flowed again - Liverpool finished one short of half a century in the league at Anfield - and they stormed to a 29-game unbeaten start, losing just two league games in the campaign to win a then-record 17th league championship.

The 5-0 demolition of Clough's Nottingham Forest is remembered as one of Anfield's best performances - Liverpool could have reached double figures that night. The legend Tom Finney said: "It was the finest exhibition I've seen the whole time I've played and watched the game. You couldn't see it bettered anywhere, not even in Brazil."

But they were denied the double by Bobby Gould's ruthless Wimbledon, who pulled off one of the biggest FA Cup shocks of all time to lift the trophy. Everton knocked Liverpool out of the League Cup in the fourth round, winning 1-0 at Anfield.

Dalglish's side were also denied participation in Europe thanks to the UEFA ban imposed after Liverpool supporters rioted at Heysel in the European Cup final against Juventus three years earlier, when 39 Italian fans were killed.

Manchester United 1998/99



Squad: Schmeichel, Van der Gouw, G Neville, Irwin, May, Johnsen, Stam, Brown, Berg, P Neville, Clegg, Curtis, Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Butt, Giggs, Blomqvist, Cruyff, Greening, Mulryne, Wilson, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham, Solksjaer, Nevland

Top scorers: Yorke 29, Cole 24, Solksjaer 18

Manchester United won the league 13 times under Ferguson but has there been a better side than the one which won the first treble by an English club?

Although unable to remain unbeaten throughout the league campaign, this United team did manage a run of 33 games without defeat and suffered just three league losses, including a shock home defeat to Middlesbrough at Christmas.

Ferguson made two significant additions in summer '98 after finishing the previous season without a trophy, signing Dutch defender Jaap Stam and striker Dwight Yorke for a combined £23m. Yorke finished the season top scorer with 29 goals. When they won the title two years earlier, they became the first Premier League team to clinch the prize with five games remaining, but they were chased to the finishing line by Arsenal here.

The League Cup run ended at the quarter-final stage with defeat to eventual winners Tottenham but United comfortably won the FA Cup, and clinched the double, with a 2-0 win over Newcastle. The cup run had included late, dramatic wins over Liverpool and Chelsea and that goal from Ryan Giggs in the semi-final replay against Arsenal when the Welsh winger powered past the entire Gunners defence late in extra-time and whirled his shirt over his head in celebration.

They achieved the treble with a miraculous comeback against Bayern Munich in Barcelona, which epitomised the spirit of Ferguson's team that season. They were behind to Mario Basler's sixth-minute free-kick and then outplayed for most of the game as Bayern hit the woodwork twice and pounded Peter Schmeichel's goal. Teddy Sheringham equalised as the game moved into three minutes of added time from a David Beckham corner. Another corner two minutes later and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer smashed the ball past Oliver Kahn to create history.

Arsenal 2003/04



Squad: Lehmann, Stack, Cole, Keown, Campbell, Toure, Clichy, Lauren, Cygan, Hoyte, Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg, Parlour, Edu, Gilberto Silva, Bentley, Fabregas, Bergkamp, Henry, Wiltord, Reyes, Kanu, Aliadiere, Owusu-Abeyie.

Top scorers: Henry 39, Pires 19

The Arsenal Invincibles were unbeaten in the league throughout the season and went on to remain undefeated for a record 49 games.

Manager Arsene Wenger's only additions were German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann, who is now on the Frenchman's coaching staff, and striker Jose Antonio Reyes, a £10.5m mid-season arrival who only made 13 appearances in the campaign, and scored two goals.

The damage was done by Thierry Henry, who scored 39 goals in 51 games on his way to winning the PFA and FWA player of the year double. Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg backed Henry's brilliance with 29 goals between them and Patrick Vieira was formidable at the heart of the midfield.

They came undone in the cup competitions though, going out at the hands of Manchester United in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and League Cup.

Ferguson's team gained some revenge for the infamous 'battle of Old Trafford' and Martyn Keown's manhandling of Ruud van Nistelrooy but finished third behind Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea, 15 points adrift of Arsenal.

Chelsea knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League at the quarter-final stage and although they went out to Monaco in the semi-finals, new owner Roman Abramovich had enjoyed his first season at Stamford Bridge.

He sacked Ranieri in the summer and appointed Jose Mourinho. Chelsea won the Premier League the following season and set a 95-point record which remains unbroken.

When Vieira lifted the Premier League trophy in 2004, it was a golden version, in recognition of the newly crowned Invincibles' unbeaten run.

Wenger and Arsenal have not won the Premier League since.

Manchester City 2017/18


3227329024 84

Squad: Ederson, Bravo, Walker, Otamendi, Stones, Kompany, Gundogan, Danilo, Bernardo Silva, Laporte, Mendy, De Bruyne, Sane, Fernandinho, David Silva, Delph, Fernando, Zinchenko, Yaya Toure, Foden, Sterling, Aguero, Jesus

Top scorers: Aguero 30, Sterling 21

With the League Cup in the bag, the shock defeat at Wigan in the FA Cup ensured that Pep Guardiola's team would not better the achievement of the Manchester United with a unique quadruple. Following the 3-0 Champions League defeat at Anfield, a treble is now jeopardy.

But in the Premier League, City have been dominant and virtually untouchable, losing just twice - at Liverpool in January and in last night's epic Manchester derby at the Etihad. Former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach Guardiola was criticised for apparently abandoning any defensive principles in his debut Premier League season and last summer he bought attack-minded full-backs Kyle Walker and Bernard Mendy, midfielder Bernardo Silva and a ball-playing keeper in Ederson.

But it is going forward that City have truly thrived under Guardiola's guidance and the form of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero has blown most of the Premier League away since August.

Despite losing the chance to become the first team to win the title with six games to go last night, they could still breach the 100-point and 100-goal marks before the season is concluded.

Champions League and trebles may have to wait another year . . .

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