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.
#3 Cristiano Ronaldo | Juventus
Cristiano Ronaldo's achievements in the UEFA Champions League are otherworldly, to say the least. The Portuguese superstar is one of the greatest players the competition has ever witnessed and leads the charts for most goals, assists, final appearances (six, along with Paulo Maldini), and a host of other statistics.
What makes Ronaldo one of the best players in football, apart from the fact that he's the highest scorer in European history, is his ability to deliver in the bigger games. Ronaldo has made a name for himself as one of the most clutch players in the sport with a host of important and defining goals for Portugal, Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Juventus.
With 25 goals in 22 quarter-finals, 13 in 21 semi-finals, and four in six finals, the 36-year-old is the most prolific player in the knockout stages of the Champions League. This includes hat-tricks against Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid on two occasions, Wolfsburg, among other clubs.
CR7 also has a host of crucial hat-tricks on the international stage against the likes of Spain, Sweden and a Nations League semi-final treble Switzerland among other memorable displays. His goals also helped Portugal reach the UEFA Euro final in 2016, which was Portugal's first piece of silverware.
Perhaps he could have found himself higher up this list if Juventus' knockout fixtures in the recent past against Olympique Lyon, FC Porto, and AFC Ajax panned out differently. Irrespective of the fact that his powers appear to be waning at the age of 36, Ronaldo has already gone down as one of the greatest big-game players the sport has ever seen.
#2 Sergio Ramos | Real Madrid
Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos is the only defender to make it to this list, and that alone speaks volumes of his big-game credentials. He may be known for his infamous record of 26 red cards, the most for any player since 2000, but there is so much more to Ramos. The Spanish centre-back is widely regarded as one of the best defenders to ever play the game and he has won every possible trophy available to him throughout his career, including a World Cup and two Euros with Spain.
The Blancos were blessed with an attacking trio of dreams with Ronaldo, Gareth Bale, and Karim Benzema, but when they appeared to be down and out, it was their majestic centre-back who bailed them out with some of the most sublime displays in Champions League history.
Ramos has played 56 knockout games in the UCL over his career, during which he's scored seven goals — the most of any defender in the competition. And they weren't just goals to add further gloss to a comfortable scoreline as the Spaniard's strikes were crucial to Real Madrid's golden era European era, which saw them win four titles in five years.
The Real Madrid captain's crowning moment was his equalising goal in the 2014 UCL final against Atletico Madrid. The Blancos were just seconds away from losing their first European final since 1983, and as the clock read 92:48, Ramos rose to the occasion (literally) to bring Real Madrid back into the game. They eventually won the final 4-1 to bring home La Decima, ending a nine-year drought. He replicated this feat in 2016 in the Supercup final with an equalising header in the 34th second of the 92nd minute.
Throw in another UCL final goal against Atleti in 2016, two knockout stage goals against Bayern Munich in the 2014 semi-final along a host of accomplished defensive displays into the mix and it isn't hard to see why Ramos is one of the greatest big-game players of all time. The old cliche 'cometh the hour, cometh the man' has never been more true.
#1 Kylian Mbappe | Paris Saint-Germain
It would take something truly spectacular for a 22-year-old to top a list of players including the likes of Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, and that's exactly what Kylian Mbappe is. Specuactular.
The French superstar has established himself as one of the best players in world football since breaking onto the scene as a young talent at AS Monaco. Since his famous 2016/17 campaign, Mbappe has gone on to become the second-most expensive footballer ever and fired France to the World Cup.
The 22-year-old went became the first-ever player to score a UCL knockout stage hat-trick against Barcelona at the Nou Camp in February in a stunning 4-1 win. With his penalty in the reverse fixture, he's the first player to put four past the Blaugrana in a UCL tie. Mbappe's most recent brace against Bayern in the quarter-finals helped him surpass Thierry Henry's knockout stage tally in the competition.
Mbappe was also the youngest-ever scorer in a UCL semi-final as he found the back of Juventus' net at the age of 18. Overall, he's been involved in 16 goals (13 goals and three assists) in just 18 European knockout fixtures, including goals at the Etihad Stadium, Old Trafford, Camp Nou, Santiago Bernabeu, Allianz Arena, Juventus Stadium, and the Signal Iduna Park.
The PSG forward became the first player in 60 years (!) to score two goals in a World Cup game when he smashed Argentina in 2018 and the third teenager to score in a World Cup final, both since Brazilian great Pele. Mbappe is undoubtedly a player born to play on the biggest stages the game has to offer and, going by his displays so far, he's at his best when the lights shine brightest.