Even if you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you most likely heard – and saw – Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski’s evisceration of Wolfsburg's defense, scoring five goals in the span of nine minutes – certainly one of the greatest single game performances of all time. What’s even more impressive is Lewandowski accomplishing the feat after coming on as a substitute in the second half.
There’s no doubt the Polish striker turned in the best performance of the season thus far. After all, at the time, he had outscored Liverpool and Juventus’ goal total in their respective leagues for the 2015/16 campaign, in less than 10 minutes. With the game in the record books, the real question is how this performance ranks against the greatest single game performances by an individual in the history of soccer.
In ranking the top-10 games by an individual player, we take into account other criteria, going beyond just the goal tally. We also include the importance of the match, coupled with the strength of the opposing team. Of course, please recognize that this list isn’t the be-all and end-all of the greatest single game performances of all time singular soccer achievements; it’s simply one man’s opinion.
WIth that in mind, let’s begin with #10.
#10 Greatest Single Game Performance: Eusebio vs. North Korea – 1966 World Cup
Before Cristiano Ronaldo dominated the headlines in Portugal, there was another Portuguese legend who thrived in the 1960s. Gifted with a powerful right foot, Eusebio scored a plethora of goals for club and country. But his most impressive game came at the 1966 World Cup, when Portugal faced upstart North Korea in the quarterfinals.
The North Koreans took everyone by surprise, scoring three goals in the first half for a comfortable lead. However, from there, it was Eusebio who stole the highlights. The Portuguese striker nabbed four straight goals en route to a 5–3 Portugal win, all blasts off his trademark right foot.
While Portugal were defeated by England 2–1 in the semis, Eusebio did enough to earn the Golden Boot, with nine total. Having tragically passed away last year, Eusebio will always be remembered as one of the great footballers of all time. And his game in North Korea was perhaps his finest.
#9 Greatest Single Game Performance: Oliver Kahn vs. U.S.A. – 2002 World Cup
This might come as a bit of a surprise, but there is a clear distinction between best performances and best goal-scoring feats. Since we’re looking at the best performances, it’s hard to overlook Oliver Kahn’s brilliance in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against the U.S.A.
As unimaginable as it may seem, the U.S. were – for the most part – ahead of Germany when it came to clear-cut chances on goal. The problem for the Americans was, they had to get through Kahn. The German produced several fine saves on the night, including two in the first half against Landon Donovan. In total, the Americans had six shots on goal to Germany’s two, but the Germans did enough with their chances to squeeze through as 1–0 winners.
For Kahn, it was his best performance in what was a remarkable World Cup, as he finished the tournament as the first goalkeeper to win the Golden Boot. In the end, it helped cement his legacy as one of the best goalkeepers of his era, and all-time.
#8 Greatest Single Game Performance: Robert Lewandowski vs. Wolfsburg
It didn’t take long, but Robert Lewandowski’s second half massacre of Wolfsburg's defenses comes in at #8. The game – and the striker’s performance – has already been touched on, but it’s important to remember that Lewandowski accomplished this against a formidable adversary.
After all, Wolfsburg finished second to Bayern in Bundesliga last season, and (as of this writing) sit at a comfortable fourth place early in the season, even after the defeat. Thus, it makes an impressive performance all the more extraordinary.
#7 Greatest Single Game Performance: Lionel Messi vs. Bayer Leverkusen – 2011 UEFA Champions League
It’s a surprise, I’m sure, to see Lionel Messi on this list. I mean, he’s only a somewhat decent striker for a mediocre club. All jokes aside, Messi has had many tremendous games in his prolific career, but his one-man rampage of Bayer Leverkusen’s defense in the 2011 UEFA Champions League is easy to remember.
At the time, Leverkusen wasn’t considered a pushover. They had just defeated Bayern Munich the weekend before their game against Barcelona, the clearest indication that they were in form. Unfortunately for them, the good feeling didn’t last long.
Messi tore through Leverkusen’s defense throughout the game, finishing with five of Barcelona’s seven goals. In the process, he became the first player to score five goals in a game in Champions League history. He even had a Lewandowski-esque four goals in the span of 13 minutes in the second half.
Messi is still in the prime of his career – even though he is recovering from an injury – but at the moment, this game stands out as his most complete performance.
#6 Greatest Single Game Performance: Roy Keane vs. Juventus – 1999 UEFA Champions League
The Manchester United captain had several great games in his storied career, but the one that most comes to mind is his dominant performance over Juventus in the Champions League semifinals. Not only did United come back from an early 2–0 deficit, but Keane absolutely dominated the midfield, even without regulars Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs by his side.
Keane also added a goal, the first of three for United, and his consistent, well-timed passes tore apart what was considered one of the best midfields in football, comprised of Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane.
And with this impressive game, United went on to win the Champions League final and secure the treble. But without Keane’s control of the midfield against the Italians, it wouldn’t have been possible.
#5 Greatest Single Game Performance: Zinedine Zidane vs. Brazil – 2006 World Cup
Zidane is one of the rare players who retired from the game still in fine form, and his performance against Brazil in the 2006 World Cup semifinal was the clearest indication of that. The dominance is hard to see by simply looking at the box score.
It’s not what he did in the box score; it’s how he commanded the midfielder. The ball was glued to his foot, up until the moment he cleared it to an opening man on the flank or through the middle of the pitch. Put simply, he was in control throughout, seemingly playing at a different speed than the competition.
He completed the game with an assist off of a free kick, finding Thierry Henry for a well-executed finish. Of course, Zidane’s 2006 World Cup is most remembered for his headbutt on Marco Materazzi in the final against Italy, but that wouldn’t have been possible without a hypnotic midfield display against the Brazilians.
#4 Greatest Single Game Performance: Ronaldinho vs. Real Madrid – 2005 El Clasico
There have been several great individual games in El Clasico between both sides, but it’s impossible to overlook Ronaldinho’s effortless dispatching of Real Madrid’s defense in the 2005 matchup in the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium.
Samuel Eto’o opened the scoring for Barcelona, but it was Ronaldinho who took the spotlight in the second half. Going up against a young Sergio Ramos playing at right back, the Brazilian tore through Ramos and the rest of the Madrid defense en route to two incredible solo efforts, comfortably putting the ball past Iker Casillas on both occasions.
It was so impressive, that after his second goal Ronaldinho achieved an even rarer feat: A standing ovation from the Madrid fans. That – above all else – is the best indication of how impressive the Brazilian was in the 3–0 victory.
#3 Greatest Single Game Performance: Zinedine Zidane vs. Brazil – 1998 World Cup
It didn’t take long, but we’re back to Zidane – and again it’s against Brazil. However, this time it was the 1998 World Cup final, and Brazil had entered the tournament as the defending champions. Even with France in tremendous form going into the game, it was going to be a tough match for France to win.
It didn’t take long for Zidane to put his stamp on the game, scoring two of France’s three goals, both of which were headers. It was a fantastic game from Zizou, and he was unsurprisingly named the Man of the Match afterward.
All in all, it was a great World Cup for France, and one of several great games in Zidane’s storied career.
#2 Greatest Single Game Performance: Diego Maradona vs. England – 1986 World Cup
There have been several infamous goals in soccer history; however, Argentina’s 2–1 win over England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals might be the only case where two occurred in the same game, from the same player. Enter Diego Maradona.
The first of the two goals is the well-known “Hand of God,” where Diego Maradona – making a run into the England penalty box – reached out with his left hand to send the ball past England’s keeper. He followed up four minutes later with what has been dubbed the “Goal of the Century,” where Maradona began a 60-yard, 10-second dash toward the England goal and completed the run with a smooth finish past the keeper.
Diego Maradona, along with Pele, is widely considered one of the best footballers who ever played, and his goals over England helped cement that legacy.
#1 Greatest Single Game Performance: Ronaldo vs. Manchester United – 2003 UEFA Champions League
It’s weird to imagine the best performance on the list comes from a match that Real Madrid technically lost, 4–3, but they did defeat Manchester United on aggregate, and Ronaldo’s display perfectly exemplified why he was the most feared striker of his generation.
In this game, Ronaldo did everything a traditional No. 9 would do: strong cuts to goal, blistering shots from distance, terrific placement, perfectly timed first touches and suffocating ball control. The hat-trick accomplished all of these things, with three distinctly different goals.
A great first touch and finish on a different angle for the first goal, a good run to the box and tap-in for the second goal, and a blistering 25-yard strike for the third. By the time he was finished and subbed off, the Old Trafford fans left the Brazilian with a standing ovation, and perhaps yearned for him to join the team alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy. Certainly, they were happy to have a different, but equally impressive Ronaldo in the years to come.
On this day, though, it was the original Ronaldo who reigned supreme, and produced the finest individual performance of all-time.
So there you have it. Lewandowski’s scoring spree was a fantastic feat, and will go down as one of the greatest games by a striker in recent memory. However, in the grand scale of soccer feats, the importance of other matches for club and country leave several other players atop the list.
That said, this is still one man’s opinion. Were there any serious omissions? Do you disagree with the order? Where do you see Lewandowski’s five-goal flurry finishing? Please feel free to share your thoughts on the greatest single game performances in the comments section.