Greatest Attacking Performances in Soccer History
There are some matches in which an individual player single-handedly alters the scoreline through his brilliance. In these instances, every time the player receives the ball he imposes his will on the defenders and sparks instant offense through his sharp vision, creativity, clever footwork, and composure to find the back of the net. Even better is when the player can showcase such skill on the biggest stage. Here are 20 of the greatest individual displays of attacking football of all time.
Gareth Bale | Inter Milan vs. Tottenham
October 20, 2010 | Champions League Group Stage Gareth Bale dominates the left flank and scores three powerful second-half goals at the San Siro
Spurs had a nightmare start in their third group stage match against the defending Champions League winners. 35 minutes into the game, Tottenham were down 4-0 and playing with 10 men. However, Gareth Bale stole the spotlight and introduced himself on a world stage. Even though he was marked by one of the world’s best right-backs in Maicon, he dismantled Inter Milan’s defense and scored three lasers with his left foot. Although Tottenham’s comeback fell short, the storylines were all about Bale. In Tottenham’s home game weeks later against the Italian side, Bale put on another brilliant performance, again dominating Maicon and this time leading Spurs to a 3-1 victory.
Mo Salah | Liverpool vs. Roma
April 24, 2018 | Champions League Semifinal, 1st Leg Mo Salah leads Liverpool to commanding 5-2 victory against his former club in Champions League semifinal
Salah was having a phenomenal 2017-18 season and won the PFA Player of the Year award, but arguably his best outing was in the Champions League against his former club, Roma. On the big stage, Salah scored two superb goals and also provided two assists, giving Liverpool a comfortable 5-2 lead on aggregate heading into their away match. Liverpool ultimately progressed to the finals but unfortunately Salah was injured in the first half and had to be subbed off. Had he played the full 90 minutes, Liverpool would have certainly put up a better performance against Real Madrid.
Neymar | Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain
March 8, 2017 | Champions League Round of 16, 2nd Leg Neymar leads Barcelona to one of the greatest Champions League 2nd leg comebacks of all time
Entering the match down 4-0 on aggregate, Barcelona needed a miracle to advance to the Champions League quarterfinals. After a promising first half, Barcelona led 2-0 and needed at least another two goals to push the game into extra time. Neymar had a crucial hand in all four of Barcelona’s second-half goals. First, he drew a penalty in the 50th minute which Messi buried home. Then after PSG scored to push the game to 3-5 on aggregate, Neymar produced 10 phenomenal minutes to complete Barcelona’s comeback. He drew a foul outside the box and scored a pinpoint freekick. Minutes later, Luis Suárez was taken down in the box and Neymar stepped up to finish the penalty. Finally, Neymar fed a perfect pass to Sergi Roberto in the game’s dying moments to see Barcelona progress to the next round.
Ronaldo Nazário | Manchester United vs. Real Madrid
April 23, 2003 | Champions League Quarterfinals, 2nd Leg Ronaldo Nazário receives standing ovation for his dominant hat-trick at Old Trafford
Ronaldo Nazário was arguably the best striker in the world around the turn of the century and he would have been even greater if injury problems had not held him back. One of Ronaldo’s most memorable performances came at Old Trafford, where his three goals proved to be vital to send Real Madrid to the semifinals. Los Blancos would lose the match 4-3 but advanced on aggregate. Ronaldo was subbed off in the 80th minute and Manchester United fans stood up to applaud his performance, one the greatest signs of respect an opposing player can receive.
Lionel Messi | Barcelona vs. Arsenal
April 8, 2010 | Champions League Quarterfinals, 2nd Leg Messi delivers stellar four-goal performance for Barcelona to advance to Champions League semifinals
Entering the game 2-2 on aggregate, Arsenal most likely needed a win at the Camp Nou to progress to the semifinals. Early in the match, the Gunners got a crucial goal to give them the advantage. However, that lead was quickly erased due to the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi. He bagged a hat-trick before halftime with three exceptional goals and finished off Arsenal with another goal in the 88th minute. Messi has always been surrounded by great teammates at Barcelona but on this instance, he could have been playing with a bunch of Sunday League players and it would have made no difference on his attacking display.
Zlatan Ibrahimović | England vs. Sweden
November 14, 2012 | International Friendly Zlatan’s four-goal masterclass finished off by one of the greatest goals of all time
Zlatan’s performance would have been ranked higher had it not been in a meaningless game. The Swede produced an iconic display of attacking football this night, scoring all four of Sweden’s goals which included a long-range freekick and a bicycle kick from 30 yards out. He single-handly led Sweden to victory against a serviceable English side and did so in a typical Zlatan fashion.
Robert Lewandowski | Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid
April 24, 2013 | Champions League Semifinals, 1st Leg Robert Lewandowski outshines Ronaldo with four top-class goals in Champions League battle
Dortmund’s 4-1 victory over Real Madrid elevated Robert Lewandowski’s reputation from being a great striker to one who is world-class. He scored four goals in the biggest game of his career up to that point, and it could have easily been more had it not been for some good saves. With the game tied 1-1, Lewandowski exploded with three goals in the second half and helping Dortmund advance to the Champions League finals, where they would eventually lose against rivals and Lewandowski’s current club Bayern Munich.
Cristiano Ronaldo | Portugal vs. Spain
June 15, 2018 | World Cup Group Stage Ronaldo carries Portugal to grab a point against their Iberian rivals
The World Cup is football’s biggest competition and the spotlight is always on the greatest players to see how they handle such a grand stage. Ronaldo has a history of stepping up when his team needs him most for both club and country, and the 2018 World Cup was no exception. In the opening match, Ronaldo drew and converted a penalty, overpowered the Spanish goalkeeper De Gea for his second goal, and drew the foul to set up his game-tying freekick for his hat-trick. Grabbing a point and preventing Spain from taking all three was vital for the Portuguese to advance to the knockout stage.
Luis Suárez | Liverpool vs. Norwich City
December 3, 2014 | English Premier League, Matchday 14 Luis Suárez creates four moments of magic as he dismantles Norwich City’s defense
Luis Suárez had one of the best goalscoring campaigns in Premier League history in 2013/14 and rightfully won the PFA Player of the Year award. His play against Norwich City exhibited how good he was for the Reds. All four of Suárez’s goals were world-class and demonstrated his individual brilliance, as he scored a 40-yard lob over the keeper, powered home a cross from a corner, scored by flicking the ball over the defender into a half-volley from outside the box, and lasered home a perfect freekick. Suárez had a history of bullying Norwich’s defense through the years and the Canaries were pleased to see him move to Barcelona the following summer.
Xavi | Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
May 2, 2009 | La Liga, Matchday 34 (El Clasico) Xavi’s unmatched display of skill and vision leads Barcelona to victory at the Santiago Bernabeu
Barcelona’s 2009 squad was one of its best and the midfield composed of Xavi and Andres Iniesta was a key reason why. They formed a dynamic duo for both club and country, winning almost every major trophy in football together. Barcelona’s dismantling of Real Madrid in 2009’s El Clasico showcased Xavi’s brilliance, as he provided key pass after key pass to lead his team to a commanding victory over their rivals. There have been some fantastic performances in El Clasico through the years that may receive more attention, but Xavi’s display of vision in the midfield that ignited Barcelona’s attacking masterclass should not be overlooked.
Diego Maradona | Argentinos Juniors vs. Boca Juniors
November 9, 1980 | Argentine Nacional Quarterfinals Diego Maradona showcases his talent and creativity against Argentine powerhouse Boca Juniors
Leading up to the match, Boca goalkeeper Hugo Gatti stated that Maradona was overhyped and even called him fat. Maradona responded by delivering one of the best performances of his career, scoring four against the most distinguished team in the country. The first goal came from a penalty he drew from a rabona cross off the defender’s arm. His second was a quick freekick from an impossible angle that was practically unsavable. Maradona’s third goal came from a beautiful chip over the goalkeeper. The final one came from a powerful freekick from just outside the box. Boca’s fans were so impressed by Maradona’s performance that they even started singing out his name.
Lionel Messi | Barcelona vs. Bayer Leverkusen
March 7, 2012 | Champions League Round of 16, 2nd Leg Unstoppable Lionel Messi scores five in Barcelona’s 7-1 thrashing of Bayer Leverkusen
Barcelona entered the 2nd leg coming off a 3-1 away win, so they could have gotten away with an average outing and still advanced to the quarterfinals. However, Barcelona did not ease up but only stepped on the gas. Lionel Messi was the leader of this charge, scoring five goals and embarrassing the Leverkusen defense. Nobody has ever made scoring five in a Champions League match look so effortless and graceful.
Pelé | Brazil vs. Sweden
June 29, 1958 | World Cup Finals 17-year-old Pelé leads Brazil against hosts Sweden to be crowned world champions
Pelé’s 1958 World Cup is regarded as one of the highlights of his career, as he played a crucial part in Brazil’s victory in the tournament (Pelé received the silver ball, meaning he was deemed the competition’s second-best player). What was even more impressive was the age in which he produced such dominating performances. At only 17, Pelé was already one of the world’s best and he displayed his greatness against Sweden in the finals, sparking many of Brazil’s attacks, feeding key passes, and scoring two goals himself. He scored one of the most iconic goals of his career as he received the ball, flicked it over the defender, and finished with a composed half-volley to cushion Brazil’s lead in the 55th minute.
Ronaldinho | Real Madrid vs. Barcelona
November 19, 2005 | La Liga, Matchday 12 (El Clasico) Ronaldinho receives standing ovation by rival Real Madrid supporters for his performance the Santiago Bernabeu
Ronaldinho’s 2005 El Clasico at the Santiago Bernabeu was the best performance by any player in the history of the rivalry. The amount of talent on the pitch was insane — Beckham, Messi, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, Xavi, Ronaldo Nazário — the list could go on as practically every player was a world-class talent. However, this day the 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho put together the best performance of his career and scored two goals of individual brilliance. In both of his goals, Ronaldinho had his way with the Real Madrid defense and exposed Sergio Ramos in particular. Even the Real Madrid supporters recognized Ronaldinho’s greatness as they stood up to applaud him after his second goal, which unprecedented in the rich history of El Clasico.
Thierry Henry | Inter Milan vs. Arsenal
November 25, 2003 | Champions League Group Stage Henry provides 2 goals and 2 assists in vital fixture to lead Arsenal into the Champions League knockout stage
In the final match of the group stage in 2003, Arsenal essentially needed a win to advance to the knockout rounds. Thierry Henry put the Gunners up early with a well-taken strike, but Inter Milan responded by scoring off an awkward deflection to level the match. In the second half, Henry provided a crucial assist for Arsenal to regain the lead, and then he sealed the victory in the 85th minute with an excellent individual goal and another assist minutes later. He absolutely dominated Inter Milan at the San Siro and was the reason Arsenal progressed out of the group.
Diego Maradona | Argentina vs. England
June 22, 1986 | World Cup Quarterfinals Maradona scores one of the most infamous and one of the most famous goals of all time minutes apart
Diego Maradona was the star of one of the most well-known games of the 20th century in which Argentina faced off against England in a cross-continent rivalry fueled by previous bad blood on the pitch and geopolitical tensions. Throughout the 90 minutes, the English had to resort to fouling Maradona to have any chance of stopping him. Maradona seemed unable to be dispossessed and sparked almost every single Argentine attack. He broke the deadlock with his infamous “Hand of God” goal, in which the 5’5” Maradona punched the ball into the back of the net over the 6’1” English keeper. Minutes later, Maradona produced what was later called “The Goal of the Century”. He ran right past defender after defender until he just had the keeper to beat and buried the ball into the back of the net.
Pelé | Benfica vs. Santos
September 19, 1962 | Intercontinental Cup, 2nd Leg Pelé shines for Brazilian side Santos to win the Intercontinental Cup
The Intercontinental Cup was the battle between the winners of South America’s Copa Libertadores and Europe’s European Cup, and in 1962 the matchup was between the Portuguese side Benfica and the Brazilian side Santos. Santos won their home leg 3-2 and Pelé scored two goals, but his performance away from home was iconic. He scored a hat-trick and dismantled the European champion’s defense. Pelé’s most famous moment of the match came in the second half, in which he nutmegged Eusébio, who is regarded as one of the greatest footballers at the time.
Robert Lewandowski | Bayern Munich vs. Wolfsburg
September 22, 2015 | Bundesliga, Matchday 6 Robert Lewandowski scores 5 goals in 9 minutes after coming on as a halftime sub
Down 1-0 at halftime, Bayern Munich brought on their star striker Robert Lewandowski in hope of an offensive spark. What happened next was an unprecedented goalscoring masterclass as Lewandowski buried 5 goals in 9 minutes (51’, 52’, 55’, 57’, 60’). His final goal to cap off this incredible span of scoring was absolutely world-class. Of course, Wolfsburg’s defending was questionable, but Lewandowski had the skill and composure to capitalize on every opportunity he was given and it would be surprising to see a player in one of Europe’s top flights to ever replicate such a performance.
Lionel Messi | Barcelona vs. Bayern Munich, 2015
May 6, 2015 | Champions League Semifinals, 1st Leg Messi plays a flawless game against German powerhouse Bayern Munich
Lionel Messi’s stat line against Bayern Munich was certainly impressive as he scored two and grabbed one assist in Barcelona’s 3-0 win, but that fails to convey how good his attacking performance really was. Bayern Munich’s players could hardly dispossess the Argentine and Messi showcased his vision, quick thinking, and unmatched first touch all night long. He could have easily had more assists by the end of the match. Messi also had one of the most iconic moments of his career when he dropped Jérôme Boateng, who had played a central role in Germany’s World Cup victory in 2014 and was regarded as one the best center-backs in the world. After breaking Boateng’s ankles, Messi chipped keeper Manuel Neuer to complete the spectacular move.
Diego Maradona | Argentina vs. Belgium
June 25, 1986 | World Cup Semifinals Diego Maradona provides a world-class performance when his country needs him most, sends Argentina through to the finals
Coming off a brilliant performance in his previous match, Maradona topped it against Belgium in the semifinals. He again ignited all of Argentina’s attacking play and found the back of the net twice with two wonderfully taken finishes. The Argentine should have had at least one assist too, but his teammate sailed the ball over what was basically an empty net. While Maradona’s first half was good, his second-half performance was absolutely unmatched and the Belgians had no response to Argentine. His performances against England and Belgium, and then to follow it up by winning the final against West Germany, explains why the Argentine people have such a high bar for Messi when he represents the country on the pitch. Maradona’s 1986 World Cup was the greatest individual performance in the competition’s history to this date.