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The greatest teams of all time: Barcelona 2008–12

The Greatest: With Lionel Messi at his absolute peak, Josep Guardiola's FC Barcelona perfected an overwhelming form of total football in a fearsome four-year spell.

Lionel Messi (L) and Andres Iniesta after the 2009 UEFA Champions League final
Lionel Messi (L) and Andres Iniesta after the 2009 UEFA Champions League final ©Getty Images

When FC Barcelona were at their 'tiki-taka' pinnacle under Josep Guardiola, opponents could not get the ball off them, let alone score. UEFA.com dissects one of the teams that changed football.

The golden age
Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona won the 2005/06 UEFA Champions League, but one-time midfielder Guardiola's promotion from B-team dugout to senior coaching job may have been what turned a brilliant side into a legendary one.

In his four years in charge, Guardiola's men won 14 of the 19 competitions they entered, including six trophies in his first term, 2008/09: the Spanish Super Cup, Liga and Copa del Rey, plus the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup.

If the haul was mighty, perhaps more significant was that Guardiola handed debuts to 22 players who – like himself – had come through the Barcelona academy. The team helped make Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Lionel Messi into household names, and when they beat Manchester United FC 3-1 at Wembley in the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League final, Sir Alex Ferguson could only praise them: "They are the best team we've faced in my time as a manager. No one has given us a hiding like that. It's a great moment for them. They deserve it because they play the right way and enjoy their football."

The baton handover
While the relentless 'tiki-taka' brand of passing and high pressing had reporters gawping in awe most weeks, their first step towards genuine greatness possibly came in the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League semi-final when Andrés Iniesta's stunning last-minute strike at Stamford Bridge earned Barcelona a 1-1 draw – and place in the final on away goals.

Guus Hiddink's Chelsea FC had offered the most substantial philiosophical counterthrust to 'tiki-taka'. Defending solid and deep, man-marking Messi and forcing Guardiola's side to shoot from distance, they held Barça to a 0-0 draw at Camp Nou. Iniesta's curl into the top corner finally cracked Chelsea's resistance. "I hit the ball with all my heart and spirit," he recalled, with no subsequent amount of heart and spirit able to save United a 2-0 loss in the final in Rome.

The game-changing philosophy
Guardiola did not invent 'tiki-taka' – the Spain squad that won UEFA EURO 2008 under Luis Aragonés were certainly playing a form of the game, retaining possession high up the field and looking to break down rivals with quick, intricate passing moves. The attack-minded Guardiola, however, perfected the style.

His 4-3-3 template bristled with talent, Messi and Iniesta keeping the ball moving, and hemming opponents in. Former RC Celta de Vigo coach Víctor Fernández summed it up: "There is no team in the world that has played with as many players in the opposing half as Barcelona do." Attack and defence were interchangeable; if you never give the ball away, you never have to defend.

Josep Guardiola in 2009
Josep Guardiola in 2009©Getty Images

The tactical genius
"Being here gives me a sense of satisfaction just as huge as the responsibility bestowed upon me," Guardiola told his players on 17 June 2008 when he took command. "I will not let you down. If I didn't feel I was ready, I wouldn't be here."

Just 37 at the time, he had spent the bulk of his playing career at Barcelona – landing six Liga titles, the 1991/92 European Champion Clubs' Cup and the 1996/97 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup – and was a brilliantly clear communicator and a true believer. "Pep is a passionate person who knocks you out with his ideas," said Xavi. "He made it clear from day one that he could do great things with this team, but I think we exceeded expectations."

The star players
Xavi Hernández: The brains of the outfit, the pulse of the midfield, and Guardiola's envoy on the pitch, the coach said of him in Otober 2011: "Xavi will be a very difficult player to replace. Not just because of what he contributes on the park and how reliable he is, but also because of the respect he commands in the dressing room."

Andrés Iniesta: With magical skills but an unassuming nature, Iniesta dazzled. Guardiola's former Camp Nou team-mate Eusebio Sacristán summed him up: "He is imaginative. He has pure technique, ability, intuition and he knows how to manage space. He enjoys playing and he does it with a simplicity and naturalness that excites."

Lionel Messi: "If Leo smiles, everything is much easier," said Guardiola of a footballer sure to stand as one of the all-time greats. Guardiola built a team around his unbelievable technique, with the Argentinian scoring in the 2009 and 2011 UEFA Champions League finals, and in plenty more games besides.

Messi and Xavi
Messi and Xavi©Getty Images

What they said
Xavi, after winning the treble in 2009: "We are not satisfied with this treble. We have the ability to keep on going and to continue making history. The fans need to know that this does not stop here, this party will carry on."

Diego Maradona in 2007: "I already know the player who will take my place in football, and his name is Lionel Messi." 

Josep Guardiola in 2009: "I've said many times that we're fortunate to have the legacy of Johan Cruyff and Charlie Rexach. They were the fathers and we've followed them."