Ranked! The 20 best individual Champions League performances ever

 Ranked! The 20 best individual Champions League performances ever
Ranked! The 20 best individual Champions League performances ever

For some, the Champions League is the yardstick for how good you are as a footballer. Doing it across 38 matches is one thing but try doing it under the lights against the best in Europe.

Plenty of tried, too. Champions League masterclasses are reserved for only the finest of a generation – plus the odd exception – and usually, they help carve your name into the history books.

So who has the finest-ever display in continental competition?

The 20 best individual Champions League performances ever

20. Sergio Ramos vs Bayern Munich, 2014

He's often been criticised for his defending over the years but this was the match that lifted Sergio Ramos as an undisputed great of a generation simply for his all-round game.

The Real Madrid captain not only got a clean sheet defensively but headed two goals in the first 20 minutes to send Los Blancos into the Champions League final. This performance became the very definition of what a leader at the back should be.

19. Kylian Mbappe vs Barcelona, 2021

A photo was captured during Paris Saint-Germain's Camp Nou demolition of Kylian Mbappe, sprinting away from Gerard Pique; the veteran defender has a handful of the young forward's shirt and looks like he's about to slip over.

It summed up an entire night in which Mbappe ran riot. He was unstoppable, scoring a sparkling hat-trick and cutting through the Barcelona defence every time he got the ball. Reportedly he asked manager Mauricio Pochettino before kick-off if he'd ever beaten Barca before, to which the reply was a no. "Well tonight's your first," the Frenchman apparently said – and what a way to deliver the victory.

18. Jack Wilshere vs Barcelona, 2011

Jack Wilshere was 19 years old, up against Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets in the Barcelona midfield. There were seven World Cup winners alone in Barca's side: they were easily the best team on Earth. And the Hitchin schemer pocketed all of them.

The game that sent Super Jack's hype into orbit, the Arsenal midfielder controlled and dazzled, carrying the ball through defenders, piercing them with laser-guided passing and lifting the Emirates crowd that night. It wasn't quite such a happy story later – in the second leg or the latter stages of Wilshere's injury-ridden Arsenal days – but for one night at least, the teenager stood on top of the world.

11. Paul Lambert vs Juventus, 1997

Paul Lambert was signed by Borussia Dortmund on a free transfer from Motherwell. He ended up thwarting Zinedine Zidane in the Champions League final, to help land Borussia Dortmund's first-ever trophy.

Yes, that really happened. Lambert's man-marking job on Zizou was one for the ages, as he stifled the fiery Frenchman from creating anything of note for Juventus. The Scotsman even laid on an assist in that game: fittingly, however, Zidane would finally win the Champions League in Scotland against a German side, five years later.

16. Serge Gnabry vs Tottenham Hotspur, 2019

Perhaps it was expected that Amazon would gloss over this absolute spanking in their Tottenham Hotspur documentary. But that cold autumn night, north London was most certainly red.

And it was former Gunner Serge Gnabry who had fire in his heels all evening, slicing through the Spurs defence at will, every time he picked up the ball. Gnabry set up Lewandowski's first, before blowing the previous season's runners-up away with four goals. He was sensational that evening and it marked Bayern out as an early favourite in the tournament.

15. N'Golo Kante vs Manchester City, 2021

For as long as he's been in England, N'Golo Kante has been ruling any midfield he's stepped into. That peaked in the 2021 Champions League final against Manchester City.

The Frenchman has long been thought of as a destroyer but Kante's all-action, complete display both broke up attacks, carried the ball out and kept Chelsea ticking, as City desperately searched for an equaliser in Porto. There were few standout stars in the Blues' ranks on the way to the showpiece, with stunning strikes and virtuoso performances shared – but Kante's in the final was particularly special.

14. Neymar vs PSG, 2016

How Paris Saint-Germain lost 6-1 at the hands of a side they'd thumped 4-0 previously... they're probably still working out. The fact that Messi was pretty much anonymous, too? That only adds to the drama.

Neymar took centre-stage for this one, grabbing Barca by the scruff of the neck to score two and dictate play all match. This was the game that he came of age, assuming responsibility and it's probably the defining reason PSG shelled out close to £200m on his services. It's become an iconic moment in football.

13. Frank Lampard vs Liverpool, 2008

Frank Lampard fell to his knees after smashing home a penalty and you could see the anguish. The midfielder's mother had not long passed away and it must have taken so much strength to play in the Champions League semi-final, days later.

That Lampard turned in an all-time great Chelsea performance and banished the demons of Liverpool knocking the Blues out in 2005, is even more astounding. He was a Stamford Bridge legend by this point and this game only further cemented him as one of the best footballers in Europe of the 21st century.

12. Thierry Henry vs Inter Milan, 2003

There's unstoppable... and there's Thierry Henry in 2003/04. Away in the San Siro at Inter Milan, the Frenchman destroyed the Nerazzurri, toying with defenders as Arsenal ran riot. It was payback, at least, for a 3-0 defeat at Highbury weeks prior.

“Funny that, isn’t it?” Thierry Henry remarked to FFT in 2006, when asked about his extraordinary record against Italian sides. “I hear so often that it’s easier to play against English defences…”

11. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Atletico Madrid, 2017

By this point, Atletico Madrid were sick of the sight of their city rivals. Real Madrid had beaten them in the final in 2014, the quarters in 2015, the final again in 2016... and now this.

Cristiano Ronaldo turned on the style once more, having already scored a perfect hat-trick against Bayern Munich in the previous round. He single-handedly destroyed Diego Simeone's side – you know, that bunch who can defend better than anyone – as Real took one giant step into another final. When CR7 was this good, there was no getting close to him.

10. Gareth Bale vs Inter Milan, 2010

No one would have blamed Gareth Bale for keeping his head down in that second half at the San Siro. Tottenham were 4-0 down, after all.

What happened next is one of the most extraordinary performances in modern memory – even more incredible because of the fact that Bale was so individually brilliant, despite Tottenham's collapse in the first half. The Welshman tore Inter Milan to shreds with an unbelievable hat-trick – it wasn't quite enough but when Inter came to north London weeks later, the wide-man led them to victory.

9. Cristiano Ronaldo vs Atletico Madrid, 2019

"2–0 lead is the worst lead", according at least to the cliche. It certainly is when you're Atletico Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo is on the opposing team.

Different shirt, same outcome for the Portuguese forward who picked Juve up in the second leg and scored yet another stunning European hat-trick to silence Simeone's side. There was no doubting him as the biggest big-game player on earth – potentially of all time – after this one.

8. Dusan Tadic vs Real Madrid, 2019

So little was expected of Ajax after a 2-1 first-leg defeat to Real Madrid, that Sergio Ramos picked up a booking to keep him fresh for the next round. Somehow though, in the cauldron of the Bernabeu, Dusan Tadic put on the performance of a lifetime, as Real were knocked out of the Champions League for the first time in four years.

The ex-Southampton star was note-perfect throughout, running rings around the likes of Modric and Kroos; he set up the first and the second – the latter with a Zidane-like pirouette before he slid in David Neres – and thumped the third into the top corner. For 90 minutes, he was the most brilliant footballer in the world.

7. Ronaldo vs Manchester United, 2003

“My first ever game that I saw live, he [Ronaldo] was playing in it,” the striker told The Guardian. “I always remember it; it was in 2003 and he scored a hat-trick. I was only young, but he was my brother’s favourite player, so I’ve grown up watching so much of him.”

What a game to see as your first. This was vintage R9, as the Brazilian ghosted through United's backline, time and time again. He was explosive, of course, but not the supercharged Inter striker that we'd watched for years: this felt almost effortless – and that made it all the more jaw-dropping. Real would lose the game but these three away goals saw them through in quite some style at Old Trafford.

6. Lionel Messi vs Bayern Munich, 2015

It's perhaps poetic that Pep Guardiola was foiled three times by three different Spanish sides in three semi-finals of the Champions League while managing Bayern Munich. He just couldn't defeat the country that he'd redefined the football of forever – and the most iconic performance of those six games came from his former protege.

This was peak Lionel Messi – and that's saying something. The little genius scored twice, gave Neymar a sumptuous assist and simply waltzed through the Bayern back four like they weren't even there. The image of Jerome Boateng slipping onto his backside as he's wrong-footed has become the profile picture of this performance – but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

5. Lucas Moura vs Ajax, 2019

Some may say that Lucas Moura's whirlwind against Ajax will forever go down as perhaps the most world-class performance from someone who wasn't that world-class. He had absolutely no right to do what he did that night.

Tottenham were dead and buried. Yet in 45 minutes, Moura resurrected Spurs with the most inspired one-man comeback that the Champions League had ever seen, scoring three away goals to put the hosts to the sword. It was breathtaking beyond belief: and it was one of the best games in the tournament's history.

4. Lionel Messi vs Arsenal, 2010

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Lionel Messi scored five goals against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012 – but considering it was a second leg and that the first was already won, we're not putting it on this list. And anyway, this four-goal spectacular was Messi's defining performance.

Every time he got the ball, Arsenal players looked terrified. He could beat them with pace, a pass or raw power and they knew it. He was just quicker, physically and mentally, and the ease with which he racked up four goals was just frightening. He's had plenty of standout moments in Europe over the years – but few 90-minute displays as perfect as this.

3. Roy Keane vs Juventus, 1999

The ultimate captain's contribution. Roy Keane never got to play in the 1999 Champions League final, due to suspension – but he sure did play his part to make sure Manchester United got there.

The Irishman managed to keep a lid on Edgar Davids, Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps for 90 minutes, stopping almost every Juve attack by himself. Not only that, he was responsible for everything great about United building forward. He was a tornado on and off the ball that night.

2. Robert Lewandowski vs Real Madrid, 2013

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We were all set for an El Clasico final, weren't we? And then Robert Lewandowski happened.

The archetypal striker's display, Lewy tormented Madrid with a performance of poise, precision and absolutely no mercy whatsoever. Dortmund were more intense, quicker, stronger and more important, deadlier and the Polish forward summed up everything to love about them that night.

1. Steven Gerrard vs AC Milan, 2005

What a game. What a comeback. And what a captain.

Mere words do not do justice to the performance that Steven Gerrard conjured to drag Liverpool back from the brink in Istanbul that night. It wasn't just that they were facing a collection of the greatest players in the world, or that confidence had been zapped – it was the never-say-die spirit of their captain, the tenacity and brilliance on and off the ball that turned defeat into heaven for the Reds.

Gerrard turned the tide almost all by himself that night to deliver a Champions League trophy to Merseyside for the fifth time. It was utterly spellbinding – and it might never be topped in the pantheon of all-time great European displays.

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