The end of what might just be football’s golden decade is upon us and what a decade of individual skill it has been. From Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo lifting their sides to glory to Dusan Tadic, Gareth Bale and Neymar’s flashes of brilliance to Kylian Mbappe paving the way for teenagers.
2010: Gareth Bale vs Rafael Benitez’s Inter Milan
Ever wondered why Real Madrid paid that outrageous, now normal, sum for Gareth Bale?? Forget the fact that he finished his final two seasons at Spurs with 31 goals and 24 assists in the Premier League alone. It's the fact that he almost singlehandedly, at that point, kept Tottenham relevant and not just in the league. Real Madrid brought him in because of this game.
Picture this: A group stage clash against Inter Milan, that treble-winning, Jose Mourinho assembled, super Nerazzurri team and one that hadn’t lost at home in 50 games. Then imagine Tottenham going four goals and a man down inside 40 minutes and watch as the hope deflates out of their fans. It’s at that moment Gareth Bale stepped up and produced the greatest performance of his life. Three-inch perfect finishes and at the same time, Bale ended the best right-back in the world in Maicon.
Not once though, he did it again a few weeks later, just to prove to the world that he was far from a one-match wonder.
2011: Lionel Messi vs Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid
This was Lionel Messi at his destructive peak. This was Lionel Messi showing the world exactly what he could in an overdose of an El Clasico and the best of it came in the Champions League. Game 3 of the EL Clasico World Series and the Argentine was already running the game, but who can blame Barcelona for always looking for him?? He’d already scored 50 goals going into the game before 51 arrived and it was just as good as 52.
A perfect run, combined with a poacher’s finish in a completely not Lionel Messi style. The second one, however, was sensual. It was, it was, it was something. Go watch it because words will never ever describe it no matter how good they are. Because in the words of Peter Drury, “A near-supernatural goal from Lionel Messi”, and it’s apt and possibly the closest thing to perfect.
2012: Zlatan Ibrahimovic singlehandedly demolishes England
There was a lot of hype surrounding the game, but in the end it was nothing more than a friendly. A friendly game to inaugurate a brand-new stadium but, England were the better team and with 12 minutes left, they were running away with a 2-1 lead. It was then Hollywood Zlatan decided to show up with sensationalism.
He, somehow, singlehandedly tore the English apart with a hattrick in twelve minutes and each goal was better than the last. The first, of the hattrick in twelve, one saw him end Ryan Shawcross’ international career, produce a gorgeous first touch and in the same move, volley it past Hart. The second one was a 30, maybe 40, yard free-kick that should have never beaten Hart. Then the third is that outrageous, career-defining goal and one that few will ever forget.
2013: Robert Lewandowski’s outrageous four-goal haul vs Real Madrid
Before he moved to Bayern to become the ridiculousness we see today, Robert Lewandowski did the same for Jurgen Klopp and Dortmund, at an outrageous rate, and nothing proved his prowess to destroy teams than this game did. Four incredible goals, each as good as it’s predecessor with each taken with a no-nonsense authority that only the Pole and a few legends exude. His hattrick goal is possibly the best of the lot with him getting less than a second to turn sharply, create a smidge of space and then hit it into the top corner - all the while Pepe, the world’s most aggressive defender, bites and kicks at him.
2014: Tim Howard, the United States’ Secretary of Defense
Belgium are a really really good team. Take nothing away from them in this game because they simply ran the United States ragged and proved to the world that the Americans were done. They hounded, harassed and caused them nothing but problems and problems and problems. Yet the game finished 2-1 in extra time with the Red Devils, not that one, walking away with the win.
Why was it so hard?? Well, it seems that Tim Howard was in the form of his life. Imagine being so good, that FIFA decides to drug test you after the game because they themselves don’t believe what had just happened. Few would because Howard finished the game with 16 saves and, no matter what anyone says, in my opinion, it was the best performance by any American at a World Cup.
2015: Harry Kane’s brace vs Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea
Once upon a time, before he joined Manchester United and Tottenham, nobody scored four goals past Jose Mourinho and especially Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. Nobody does or rather did it before Harry Kane inspired Tottenham to do it on New Year’s day 2015. It was a sensational goal-fest with eight goals scored but Spurs scored five. Kane scored two as he turned, twisted and hustled Mourinho’s defense at his will. There seemed to be nothing Chelsea could do, with the striker even forcing the Blues to concede a penalty!!
2016: Cristiano Ronaldo singlehandedly beats Wolfsburg
There’s bound to be a few better performances in 2016 but there may never be a more important one, especially given the situation Real Madrid were in. They walked into the game, a quarter-final, 2-0 down and while many will say it was just Wolfsburg, they were playing out of their minds. Especially in the Champions League, reaching the quarter-finals by beating Manchester United and Gent.
Then 2-0 up in a wonderful game against Real Madrid meant that Ronaldo had to pull his side back with arguably one of his best performances. A hattrick, and all three goals were equally great, if not wonderful, although his free-kick should have not gone through the wall. But c’est la vie.
2017: Neymar drags Barcelona in the game of the century
This game will go down in history. This game has gone down in history and if anything, this might just be the game that defines the decade. That’s just how incredible the comeback was and for PSG, it’s humiliating. But for Neymar, it’s the game that will go down as his greatest moment. Because simply put, it was his greatest ever performance as a footballer.
Sure, Messi scored a goal but Neymar didn’t just score two goals, including a sumptuous free-kick, or dink over a 95th minute assist. He dragged Barcelona over the line as his teammates just sat and watched. And yet, for Neymar, it was the day he realized Barcelona would always be Messi’s.
2018: Gareth Bale, the bench and Liverpool’s agony
Given AS Roma’s performances, the start of another great English rivalry and a catalogue of other memories, stories more often than not are written in clutch moments. And moments like that rarely come up and when it does come, you need the man of the moment. For Gareth Bale, it was the moment for him and given the season he had, the Welshman needed it.
He needed it and, with Cristiano Ronaldo uncharacteristically bad, Real Madrid needed him and boom!! Just like that, with two sensational goals and one goalkeeping error, Gareth Bale gifted himself yet another entry in the record books. And boy, did the man deserve it.
2019: Dusan Tadic and the night of his life vs Real Madrid
Open your phone, google the lineups for this match and tell me, on god’s honest truth, would you have picked Dusan Tadic as your man of the match?? No, and that’s fine because Tadic has been largely invisible for most of his career. Decent spells in the Eredivisie and Southampton earned him a move to Ajax but nobody expected him to work out. But Erik ten Haag had something else in mind for the Serbian and boy didn't it work.
And it worked on the greatest possible day against a side that walked in, despite their “shit season”, with a lead and as European champions. But that never mattered to Tadic as he pirouetted his way into the hearts of fans across the world and ushered in a new generation. In a night filled with praise for youngsters, it was a thirty-year-old man that dominated the spotlight and he did it in style.