Barcelona's decade of dominance ranks as greatest European club reign ever

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Barcelona's decade of dominance ranks as greatest European club reign ever
Barcelona's decade of dominance ranks as greatest European club reign ever

Xavi hoisted the trophy up high, with the captain's armband adorning his left arm for the last time and the game ball forming a protruding bump under his jersey like a pregnant mother-to-be. Barcelona's 3-1 victory over Juventus on Saturday marked the fourth time in a decade that he stood on that stage as a UEFA Champions League winner. It has been a common sight. He's lifted a lot of trophies in his 17 seasons with the club.

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And while other teams have been to the final of Europe's premier club competition more often in a shorter timespan, taken fewer years to win this trophy as often or simply won it more in fewer years, this run by Barcelona should go down in history as the best of all time.

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Remarkably, Xavi is just one of three holdovers from the first Barca team to claim the European crown during this dynastic, decade-long run. But despite the turnover, this era also yielded continental titles in 2005-06, 2008-09 and 2010-11. Andres Iniesta, who assisted Ivan Rakitic on the first goal in Berlin, was the second such mainstay. Lionel Messi, whose low shot that Juve goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon parried into the path of Luis Suarez for the game-winner, was the third. Messi was 17 years old when they first won it 10 years ago, having made just 24 first-team appearances and still sporting the number 30 on the back of his jersey.

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In a few weeks, the 35-year-old Xavi will be under contract for a club that isn't Barcelona for the first time in his life, having committed to Al-Sadd in Qatar for the three presumably last years of his career. A romantic will say he is going for a final challenge; a cynic that he's off for a final paycheck.

But that isn't the point. What's worth noting here is that the trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi spanned the entire length of this dynasty, which could certainly carry on for a few years yet – even if Barca's transfer ban for this summer will make it impossible to add some necessary depth up front and in defense in the short term. And, certainly, that the teams those three were a part of conspired to form the greatest run of any European club in the tournament's history is remarkable.

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There are other contenders for that title, to be sure. When the European Cup was founded in the 1955-56 season – not to be replaced by the Champions League until 1992 – Real Madrid won the first five editions consecutively, domineering the opposition through Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. The duo once combined to score all seven goals against Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final, which was won 7-3.

Benfica and Inter Milan each won it back to back in the 1960s. And Ajax and Bayern Munich then succeeded each other in pulling three-peats. That Ajax team introduced "Total Football," the fluid and multifaceted tactical underpinnings of our modern game. Liverpool reached the final a staggering five times in nine years from 1977 through 1985, winning the thing four times.

AC Milan then were finalists five times in seven years from 1989 through 1995, prevailing thrice. A Dutch triumvirate of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard was the effervescent spine of most of those teams, which boasted one of the finest back lines we've ever seen. Real Madrid then claimed three more titles in five years with teams constructed from Galacticos like Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane. Four seasons later, Barca's run began.

When Barcelona captured just its second European title in club history, under Frank Rijkaard in 2005-06, it was a very good and deep team with the mesmeric Ronaldinho pulling the strings. But the Blaugrana were just that, a very good and deep team. When Pep Guardiola took over in 2008-09, the year they won their second of these four titles, they became something else. They were paradigm-shifting.

That's what makes this present dynasty stand alone atop the others. Barcelona didn't win as many titles as Real Madrid did and certainly didn't do it in a row (Barca had last won in 2010-11). And it took the Catalans a year longer to claim their fourth crown than it did Liverpool. They didn't reach the final as regularly and in as short a timespan as Milan did, and they didn't win with as much efficiency as Real in their second run at the turn of the millennium.

But Barcelona's time at the top has lasted longer, and they have changed how soccer will be viewed and played forever. Like that Ajax team of the 1970s, Barca reimagined how the game can be interpreted. The enduring popularity of soccer owes to the blank canvas offered up on that green surface between those white lines every time a new game kicks off. This sport has been invented and reinvented again and again.

It has seemed like Barcelona has done so several times. Guardiola's teams killed opponents by a thousand tiny cuts, passing them into oblivion with short little dinks, until they'd been hypnotized into a drooling stupor and someone would be set loose to finally strike. Tito Vilanova's side did the same after Pep left the club. Tata Martino introduced some directness, expanding Barca's attacking repertoire. And Luis Enrique, this season, consolidated the two, employing both possession and swift counterattacks. In what was supposed to be a difficult season, the Blaugrana won 50 games, tied four and lost just six.

Luis Enrique's blueprint for success comprised both possession and counterattacks. (Getty Images)
Luis Enrique's blueprint for success comprised both possession and counterattacks. (Getty Images)

They defined dominance anew. No other club reduced even the mightiest of opponents into underdogs with as much regularity. Barcelona was almost always the prohibitive favorites, and it delivered far more often than not. In so doing, it became the only European club to record two trebles, winning both the Champions League, their domestic league and domestic cup in both 2008-09 and this now-concluded 2014-15 season. For that, and their longevity, theirs was the greatest period any club has known.

What's more, in Messi, Barca has the finest player this sport has ever produced – on this we can now surely all agree. He is not yet 28. In Luis Suarez, 28, and Neymar, 23, the club has recruited the other components of the game's most lethal front line – combining for an unheard-of 122 goals this season. But Iniesta is still only 31 and has good years left. Sergio Busquets, at 26, will continue to anchor the midfield. Gerard Pique, 28, will do the same for the back line.

If the club's much-ballyhooed academy can keep producing the requisite complimentary players – or the front office can eventually return to buying them next January – there are more trophies to come. And this run could be extended yet.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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