Phil McNulty includes Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba among the top individual performances he has seen live
Every football fan remembers the great individual displays they have witnessed in the flesh – the memories remain etched forever.
It is the same for those of us who report on the game – so here are 10 of the most memorable individual performances I have witnessed while working for BBC Sport.
As with my previous 10 classic matches, the rules are that I must have been there in person and reported on the game. So if you want to know why your own favourite is not there, the simple answer may just be I was not present.
BBC Sport will be asking you to name your favourite individual performances in a live text on Thursday. You will be able to get involved via #bbcfootball.
Michael Owen: Germany 1-5 England – Olympiastadion, Munich, 1 September 2001
Michael Owen became the sixth British player to win the Ballon d’Or in 2001
England arrived underneath the sprawling spider’s web roof of Munich’s Olympiastadion as underdogs for this World Cup qualifier.
And it looked as if the tipsters had it right when Carsten Jancker put Germany ahead after only six minutes – but Michael Owen led what became a famous response from Sven-Goran Eriksson’s team.
Owen, already a world-class striker after his early deeds with Liverpool and England, equalised quickly with a right-foot finish from Nick Barmby’s knockdown. Steven Gerrard put England ahead just before half-time then Owen increased the lead after the interval, taking an Emile Heskey header in his stride to beat Oliver Kahn with a shot the great German goalkeeper should have saved.
He completed his hat-trick with another right-foot finish to make it 4-1 after 65 minutes, taking Steven Gerrard’s pass to drill a shot high past Kahn before a celebratory somersault.
Owen’s reputation took on an added layer of greatness – and reached its peak when he won the Ballon d’Or three months later, only the sixth British played to be awarded the accolade.
Ronaldo: Brazil 2-0 Germany – International Stadium, Yokohama, 30 June 2002
Ronaldo scored two goals for Brazil in the their 2002 World Cup final win over Germany
The performance that won the sport’s greatest prize must be placed in context to understand its true significance.
Brazil’s fifth World Cup final win was not simply about Ronaldo’s two second-half goals amid Yokohama’s space-age architecture – it was a story of redemption.
Ronaldo was one of the great players of his generation but the striker’s career had been blighted by serious injury and the mystery surrounding his absence from the final at France 98.
He was off, then on the teamsheet for that final, which ended in a 3-0 victory for France, with talk of a seizure then injury as conspiracy theories ran rampant in Paris.
Ronaldo played but was a shadow of his brilliant self, meaning this final in Yokohama represented so much to one of Brazil’s football icons.
He responded by scoring twice in 12 minutes, first pouncing on Germany keeper Kahn’s error after 67 minutes, then placing a precise right-foot finish for his second.
Amid chaotic scenes, Ronaldo said: “The nightmare is over. I will not detain everyone talking about my suffering over these last years. God reserved this for me and the Brazil team.”
Ashley Cole: Portugal 2-2 England – Stadium of Light, Lisbon, 24 June 2004
Ashley Cole played 107 times for England
The great moments are invariably reserved for goalscorers, goalkeepers and individual pieces of brilliance.
I have absolutely no hesitation, however, in including Ashley Cole’s performance at left-back for England in their Euro 2004 quarter-final against hosts Portugal in Lisbon as one of the great individual performances I have reported on.
Cole was up against the young Cristiano Ronaldo in what became a magnificent duel in the searing heat and humidity of Lisbon’s famous Stadium of Light.
This was not the fully formed Ronaldo of later years, but he never stopped running at Cole. The defender never stopped thwarting him. Cole was also superb in every other aspect and area of the game.
It was, quite simply, a performance of world class. As good as it gets in that position.
England, almost inevitably, lost on penalties, but such was the quality of Cole’s display his full-back partner Gary Neville singled him out for sympathy after the game as one player who did not deserve to taste defeat. He really was that good.
Andrey Arshavin: Liverpool 4-4 Arsenal – Anfield, 21 April 2009
Andrey Arshavin joined Arsenal from Zenit St Petersburg in February 2009
Andrey Arshavin was a mercurial figure, capable of brilliance and anonymity in equal measure – but he was never more productive and efficient than he was on this night at Anfield.
Arsenal’s gifted Russian was the sole reason the Gunners got a point from a one-sided game that dealt a severe blow to Liverpool’s title chances.
Let’s examine the statistics.
Arshavin had four shots and scored four goals. Arsenal only had eight in total.
Liverpool had 26 shots in total, with 14 on target. The only Liverpool player not to have an attempt on goal was keeper Pepe Reina.
In terms of end product, it does not get much better than what Arshavin delivered.
He put Arsenal ahead with a close-range finish in front of the Kop, then struck twice after Liverpool went ahead, firing an angled finish past Reina from 20 yards, then pouncing on a defensive error.
Liverpool equalised only for Arshavin to race clear for another stunning finish.
Yossi Benayoun rescued a point for Liverpool – but this was Arshavin’s night.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Arsenal 1-3 Man Utd – Emirates Stadium, 5 May 2009
Cristiano Ronaldo joined Real Madrid from Manchester United for a then world record £80m in 2009
Cristiano Ronaldo was perhaps the biggest jewel in Manchester United’s crown around this time and on a glorious May night at Emirates Stadium he was peerless.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was buoyant after restricting United to a 1-0 first-leg advantage in the Champions League semi-final and the home fans were optimistic inside Emirates Stadium before the kick-off in glorious evening sunshine.
Ronaldo changed all that inside 11 minutes, crossing for Park Ji-sung to score before unleashing a quite astonishing 40-yard free-kick with his right foot from a wide position, struck with such power from an unusual stance that Arsenal keeper Manuel Almunia was totally deceived by its pace, only moving when it was too late.
All this was topped by one of the great counter-attacking Champions League goals, just after the hour, to send United to the final.
Ronaldo met Nemanja Vidic’s clearance deep inside his own half with a piece of genius, a flick to Park, who then released Wayne Rooney. The Portuguese then set off at lightning speed, leaving Johan Djourou trailing, and was in the perfect position to steer a right-foot finish high past Almunia.
From start to finish, the move took around 10 seconds. It was the goal Ronaldo’s performance deserved.
Lionel Messi: Barcelona 2-0 Man Utd – Stadio Olimpico, Rome, 27 May 2009
Lionel Messi has won the Champions League four times with Barcelona
Lionel Messi was edging towards greatness after inheriting Barcelona’s number 10 jersey from Ronaldinho. The talent that persuades many to argue he is the greatest ever to play the game was unveiled in all its glory near the banks of the Tiber.
Manchester United were trying to retain the Champions League, while Pep Guardiola was attempting to complete an historic treble, having already won La Liga and the Spanish cup in his first season in charge.
United, in what would prove to be Cristiano Ronaldo’s final game before an £80m move to Real Madrid, threatened to overwhelm Barcelona in a lightning start but Samuel Eto’o’s ninth-minute goal set the scene for a Messi masterclass.
Messi tortured United with his sublime skill, movement and threat, crowning a virtuoso performance by soaring behind Rio Ferdinand to head Xavi’s delivery back across Edwin van der Sar in the 70th minute.
A true great doing what true greats do – controlling the biggest games. It was a privilege to witness.
Gareth Bale: Tottenham 3-1 Inter Milan – White Hart Lane, 2 November 2010
Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid from Tottenham for £85m in 2013
“Taxi For Maicon.”
The words that recall a display from Gareth Bale that confirmed his ascent to superstardom.
Bale scored a hat-trick in a losing cause when Spurs were beaten 4-3 by holders Inter Milan in the Champions League group stage – but he was not to be denied when the Italians came to north London the following month for the return.
The Wales star delivered one of the great performances as he destroyed Inter, and in particular the hapless Maicon, reducing the Brazil defender to a shambolic figure.
Inter coach Rafael Benitez tried employing reinforcements to stop Bale – but they all went the same way as Maicon.
White Hart Lane’s old press box offered a close up view of events. It was the perfect vantage point to see Bale flying down the wing like a tornado.
He was accompanied by deafening roars every time he received the ball, making goals for Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko.
At the final whistle Portuguese legend Luis Figo, on Inter’s staff, went across to Harry Redknapp and mouthed: “Bale is just amazing. Amazing. He has killed us twice.”
And Figo knows a stellar performance when he sees one.
David Silva: Man Utd 1-6 Man City – Old Trafford, 23 October 2011
David Silva has made 301 appearances for Manchester City
David Silva’s magic was sprinkled all over Manchester United’s worst home defeat since 1955, as they conceded six at Old Trafford for the first time since 1930. It was inflicted by a Manchester City side Sir Alex Ferguson had airily dismissed as the “noisy neighbours”.
It was a day that City’s fans had waited for through years of suffering United supremacy. The Spanish maestro pulled the strings, and it was a pivotal result as Roberto Mancini’s side beat United to the title on goal difference.
There were some stellar City performances, especially from James Milner, but Silva eclipsed them all.
The Spaniard played in Milner to set up Mario Balotelli’s first and his ‘Why Always Me?’ T-shirt celebration. He then showed remarkable composure and vision inside the area with an audacious reverse pass to release the midfielder again to pave the way for another Balotelli finish.
United simply could not cope with Silva’s brilliance and he was on the scoresheet himself to make it 5-1, racing clear to nutmeg United keeper David de Gea.
Silva then arguably saved his best for last, cushioning a long-range volleyed pass from well inside his own half with his left foot between Rio Ferdinand and Chris Smalling, leaving Edin Dzeko to streak away and round off the rout.
A performance of sheer genius.
Didier Drogba: Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea – Allianz Arena, Munich, 19 May 2012
Didier Drogba played in two Champions League finals for Chelsea
Chelsea needed something special when they faced Bayern Munich in their own stadium in the 2012 Champions League final.
They went in search of the trophy that owner Roman Abramovich wanted above all others under the interim management of Roberto di Matteo. But they did so without a suspended quartet – captain John Terry, towering defender Branislav Ivanovic and midfielders Raul Meireles and Ramires.
The odds and logic were all against Chelsea – but who better to turn the whole thing on its head than their great talisman Didier Drogba?
Four years earlier, Drogba had left the scene of Chelsea’s previous Champions League final in disgrace after he was sent off late in extra time, meaning he was not available to take a penalty in the shootout, which was lost to Manchester United in Moscow.
So here in Munich he was a man on a mission – and how it showed.
Drogba worked tirelessly to lead from the front as under-strength Chelsea fought tooth and nail in front of a partisan crowd on Bayern’s own territory but the task looked even beyond him when Thomas Muller headed the “home” side in front with seven minutes left.
Cometh the hour, cometh Drogba.
He rose to power home a magnificent header from Juan Mata’s corner in the dying moments of normal time.
Drogba was so involved he even conceded a penalty in extra time, fouling Franck Ribery – only for Petr Cech to save from Arjen Robben.
In the shootout, the decisive kick fell to Drogba, who sent Manuel Neuer the wrong way to win the Champions League.
After the game, Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson remarked: “As far as I’m concerned, Didier Drogba won the Champions League for Chelsea.”
Three days after the final, Chelsea announced the striker was leaving the club to join Chinese side Shanghai Shenhua.
Drogba’s legendary status with Chelsea was assured in Munich – and he returned in 2014 to play his part in another title win under Jose Mourinho.
Mohamed Salah: Liverpool 5-2 Roma – Anfield, 24 April 2018
Mohamed Salah joined Liverpool from Roma for £34m in June 2017
Liverpool’s “Egyptian King” reigned supreme when his former club Roma came to Anfield for the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Mohamed Salah was in unstoppable mood for most of his first season at Anfield but this was possibly his finest performance in a magnificent campaign.
He had already threatened constantly, forcing saves from Roma keeper Alisson (a team-mate in Italy and now again at Anfield) before curling a brilliant shot into the top corner to give Liverpool the lead after 35 minutes.
Salah, who had been named PFA player of the year just days earlier, then strode on to Roberto Firmino’s pass on the stroke of half-time to loft a classy finish over Alisson as he came out.
And in this complete performance, Salah not only scored goals, he also dazzled and tormented the left side of Roma’s rearguard to set up simple finishes for Sadio Mane and Firmino as Liverpool went 4-0 up in an hour.
Salah’s importance was emphasised by how heavily his loss was felt when he had to go off injured after tangling with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos in the final in Kiev, which Liverpool lost 3-1.