One of the defining factors that separates a talented footballer from a great one is the ability to step up for their team when it matters most. When looking back at some of the all-time greats of the game, this is one quality that most possess — they rise to the occasion and take crucial games by the scruff of the neck and fire their side to glory.
There have been many such iconic names in the recent and distant past who delivered time and time again under pressure.
Take Didier Drogba, for example. The Ivorian superstar is fondly remembered as the greatest Chelsea centre-forward of the century and is one of the most decorated African footballers of all time. Drogba is also considered to be one of the most impressive big-game players to grace the Premier League due to his record of scoring in finals.
The former Olympique Marseille man found the back of the net in the finals of four FA Cups, two League Cups, and the UEFA Champions League, the last of which was an 88th-minute equaliser against Bayern Munich.
Other names include the likes of Andres Iniesta and Steven Gerrard, who have been clutch players for Barcelona and Liverpool respectively throughout their careers. Both midfielders have unique achievements to highlight their big-game credentials as well. Iniesta is the only player to be awarded the Man of the Match in the World Cup final, European Championship final and UCL final, while Gerrard is the only man ever to score in an FA Cup, League Cup, Champions League and UEFA Cup final.
While these decorated icons of the game are unfortunately of the past, there are many names in the present who thrive under pressure. On that note, here are the five best big-game players in football at the moment.
#5 Lionel Messi | Barcelona
A lot has been made of Barcelona legend Lionel Messi's big-game credentials in the past. The legendary forward is arguably one of the greatest players to grace the game, but his failure with the national side remains the only blot on what is one of football's most celebrated careers.
However, as far as the Blaugrana are concerned, Messi has been one of their go-to players for well over a decade as the 33-year-old has scored some of the most important goals in Barcelona's folklore, which warrants a spot on this list.
The six-time Ballon d'Or winner is the all-time top scorer in one of the most incredible fixtures in football, El Clasico, as he has struck 26 times across 45 games against Real Madrid. This includes their infamous UCL semi-final clash in 2011, the iconic shirt celebration in 2017 at the Santiago Bernabeu after a late winner, and many other memorable moments.
Speaking of the UCL, Messi found the back of the net in two finals against Manchester United in 2009 and 2011, the semi-final against Bayern Munich where he went past Jerome Boateng like he was a training cone, and has an overall record of 49 knockout stage goals.
Messi's goal in the 2015 Copa del Rey final is regarded as one of the greatest goals in Spanish football. Although he failed to replicate his heroics for La Albiceleste, it is important to note that he was their best player at the 2014 World Cup and his clutch hat-trick against Ecuador was one of the most important moments in their recent history.
#4 Thomas Muller | Bayern Munich
Bayern Munich star Thomas Muller is arguably one of the most unique players in world football. A self-proclaimed Raumdeuter, an invader of space, Muller relies on his sense of knowing exactly where to be at any given moment in the attacking third and exploiting spaces left behind by opposition players.
Muller is one of the most decorated German players of all time with a staggering nine league titles, two UCLs, and a World Cup to his name, among other top honours. His contribution to these titles has been immense as he has a catalogue of important goals for club and country.
The 31-year-old scored an 83rd-minute header to break the deadlock in the 2012 UCL final, three goals in the semi-finals and two goals in the quarter-finals against Barcelona in 2013 and 2020, along with and a host of other season-defining goals for Bayern Munich.
Muller has come up clutch for his side even in the ongoing campaign as he helped Bayern claw back into the game against Paris Saint-Germain with a brilliant header. Overall, the Raumdeuter has 24 goals and 13 assists in 56 UCL knockout games for Bayern — the most of any German player in the competition.
Muller scored five goals and set up a further three in the 2014 World Cup, including the opener in their historic 7-1 semi-final win against Brazil in 2014. It was the second time he had scored five in a World Cup after doing so in 2010 as well, where Die Mannschaft finished third. He will certainly have his eye on compatriot Miroslav Klose's record tally of 16 come 2022.