Pep Guardiola and his Barcelona side have finally joined a select club started by Jock Stein and Celtic in 1967. This club is restricted to trainers whose team win the big one, the European Cup or Champions League, as well as their own domestic double of League and Cup. The Ajax of Cruyff, Neeskens and Rep, coached by Stefan Kovacs were the next club to join, in 1971-72. It would be another 16 years before a further member was admitted when Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven achieved the feat in 1988. In 1999 Alex Ferguson became the second Scot to join when Manchester United achieved their treble. And not until this year has a fifth member been admitted when Guardiola achieved it in his first season as a top class manager.

While Jock Stein’s Celtic also won the League Cup and the Glasgow Cup that incredible season, the normal European pattern of having only the League and Cup to compete for, will ensure that only the domestic double is needed to apply. With only 5 members in over 53 years of the European Cup/Champions League, it is clearly a very exclusive club and ensures the Big Man will always be in exalted company. It can never be taken away from Stein and the Lisbon Lions that they were the first team ever to achieve this remarkable treble.

It has been a football delight to watch Barcelona this season. Probably not since the Cruyff Ajax team of the early 1970s has a club side produced such scintillating, exciting and effective football. They won the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the European Champions League to establish themselves as without doubt the best team in the world. And the most beautiful and exciting to watch.

Having studied them closely every week of the Spanish football season, GGW offers several keys to understanding the secret of their performance.

1) Yes they do play 3 forwards

Unlike other teams that claim to play 4-3-3, Barcelona do play 3 men upfront. Not wingers or wide players but attackers. And what attackers. Messi, Etoo, and Henry, must all be among the current top 10 forwards in the world. For one team to have three of them, and play all three of them together, seems so unfair, to the competition if not the spectators. Between them they have scored over 100 goals in all competitions this season, a truly incredible statistic that says it all.

2) Their 3 in midfield contain two world class attacking players

It has taken a long time for Xavi and Iniesta to be recognised as world class players but the proof has been there all season long. He may not be seen as the best player in the world, flashier front men are always going to deny him that title, but Xavi is surely without doubt the most influential player in the world. UEFA recognised that in the summer of 2008 when he was awarded the best player of Euro 2008 trophy. Throughout this season he has been consistently the key influence in Barca’s success. Much of their possession flows through him and amazingly he has often ended up games having more successful passes than all the opposition’s 4 or 5 man midfield put together. He has run away with the Spanish title for completed passes.

Iniesta, also lauded at Euro 2008, has at last been recognised as a world class midfield player. His magnificent performances against Chelsea culminating in that last minute winner sealed his international recognition as one of the elite of great players capable of being a serious candidate for the World Footballer of the Year awards.

In addition all three of their other midfield players, Yaya Toure, Keita and Sergio Busquets, who alternate the third midfield spot between them, have established themselves as players of genuine international class.

3) The defence contains 3 excellent passing midfielders

The question people find hardest to answer is “How can Barca play only 3 in midfield, against teams with 4 or more often 5 flooding their midfield, and yet outplay them comfortably?” Part of the answer lies in 2 above, in the sheer weight of class and influence of the Barca midfield, but a significant part of the answer is revealed when you closely examine the Spanish passing statistics for all players. Three of Barca’s back four, Dani Alves, Abidal and more surprisingly Puyol  feature high in that list way above most midfielders. And in the second half of the season Pique began to climb that list too.

4) The opposition seldom see the ball

Once more the statistics provide clear evidence of the supremacy of Barcelona and the unprecedented extent to which Barca monopolised possession of the ball. In every single game they played in 2008-2009 up to the point where they clinched the league, they had the greater share of possession. The closest any rival came to sharing possession was Valencia with 45%. A Barcelona share of up to 70% was common, sometimes it was closer to an astonishing 80%. Most opponents had the ball for only 1/3 of the game or less.

5 A sound defence

Normally teams that attack as much as Barcelona do, have a relatively poor defensive record and prosper by the simple strategy of scoring more goals than the opposition. But in 2008-2009 Barcelona had the best defence in Spain and their goalkeeper Victor Valdes won the Zamorra, the trophy for the keeper who concedes fewest goals. Victor Valdes has often in the past been seen as a weak link in the Barcelona set-up but he has to take credit for the low goals against column and had an outstanding season. Puyol is the epitome of the rugged fearless defender. Pique finally established himself as an international class defender. Until his injury the Mexican Raul Marquez was defensive solidity personified. And the full backs, particularly Dani Alves, a snip at 30m euros, proved that attacking fullbacks can defend well.

6) A Barcelona minded coach

Most Barcelona fans had welcomed the appointment of long time club legend 37 year old Guardiola as the new manager but some worried a little about his lack of managerial experience (only one season, in charge of the Barcelona B team in the third level). But Guardiola quickly proved himself an inspired choice, reimposing standards of discipline and behaviour that had slipped drastically in Riijkaard’s last season, and returning the club to classic Barca principles of play and behaviour, on and off the pitch.

Can the success of 2008-2009 be continued into 2009-2010?

Their main rivals in Spain, Real Madrid, will be a better club and a better team under new President Florentino Perez, new Football Director Jorge Valdano and new manager Manual Pellegrini, well known to Celtic fans from his 5 successful years with their adopted Spanish club Villarreal.

Pellegrini will have new playing resources like Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Benzema and Albiol   to help him create a team capable of competing with Barca  in Spain and Europe and anyone who has seen Villarreal play under Pellegrini know his Real Madrid will be an attacking and attractive side.

A future GGW Spanish Scene will look in more detail at Pellegrini and his team but undoubtedly they will challenge Barcelona harder in both Spain and Europe than Ramos’s team did.

Barcelona have kept the essence of their successful side. The one departure, E’too, was only  allowed to go when an equally talented replacement Ibrahimovic was secured. Although they let seldom used reserves  like Hleb and Gudjonsson  go, they have secured  one more class full-back Maxwell and a dominating centre back in Ukranian international Chygrinski from Shakhtor Donetz, Both are international class defenders but are likely to be only reserves. Most importantly they have a wealth of young players like Pedro, Jeffren, Muniesa, Jonathon and Thiago ready to join Bojan as influential players groomed in the Barcelona ways from an early age.

Guardiola will be geared to stamp on any signs of complacency and ensure they remain focused, disciplined and competitive. Opposition teams will know what to expect but they will have to have the ball first before they can do anything with it. So expect Barcelona to be formidable on all fronts again next season. No team has ever retained the Champions League and success in pursuing that goal should determine whether Guardiola’s Barca side prove to be a one season wonder or join the ranks of the European Cup trophy retainers like Di Stefano’s Real Madrid, Eusebio’s Benfica, Suarez’s Inter Milan, Cruyff’s Ajax, Beckenbauer’s Bayern, Liverpool and AC Milan. With the final to be held in the Bernabeu, on a Saturday, Barcelona would love to prove their superiority, preferably over ‘home’ team Real Madrid. GreenGreenWorld advice is, don’t bet against them.