The Champions League final is one of the biggest games on the planet, and it’s featured some of the best players too.
Great players who have run the gamut of performance levels, from baffling bottlejobs to Man of the Match displays. There have been 19 of the latter in Champions League finals so far this century. 20 displays that are all varying degrees of excellent.
But who is the most excellent? Who is the best of the best? Below is a ranked list of all 20 Man of the Match award winners from each Champions League final of the new millennium.
Equal weighting has been given to how much of a contribution they made to the result (goals, assists, penalty saves) as well as their overall performance and influence on the team, as well as (inevitably) personal opinion.
Who falls where? Read on and find out!
20. Filippo Inzaghi
Milan 2-1 Liverpool, 2007
Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us “revenge is a dish that is best served cold”? Well, obviously Milan haven’t because they served a piping hot cup of revenge just two years after losing the Champions League final to Liverpool in 2005.
The instrument of their vengeance? Pippo Inzaghi. The goal-poacher who deflected a free-kick in to open the scoring and then settled the game with his only clean effort late on. Two goals in a final ain’t bad, in fact it’s pretty great, but this list needs more.
19. Samuel Eto’o
Barcelona 2-1 Arsenal, 2006
When your much-vaunted side has been one of the two best in the world for coming up to two years running, you need to win the Champions League to validate all that hype. But Barcelona were losing 0-1 to 10-man Arsenal with 15 minutes remaining in Paris. Had they failed to win this, it would have been a colossal embarrassment.
Luckily for them, Samuel Eto’o charged infield from the left and slotted the ball into about half an inch of space at the near-post to level it up for the Blaugrana. Minutes later they won the whole thing through Juliano Belletti. Fate, eh?
18. Virgil van Dijk
Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham, 2019
Liverpool vs. Spurs was not a memorable final as both sides got somewhat nervous and never fully committed to giving us the all-out attack-fest we hoped for. But at least in part that was down to the excellent defending from the centre-backs, in particular Virgil van Dijk.
The world’s most expensive defender proved his worth by utterly dominating the Spurs attack. In the air, on the deck, running in behind or organising set-pieces; there wasn’t a question Mauricio Pochettino’s side could pose that Van Dijk didn’t already have the answer for.
17. Paolo Maldini
Milan 0-0 Juventus (3-2 pens), 2003
This final is long remembered as being boring as hell, and if what you wanted was pulsating attacking football then yes, it was. But this game was a defensive masterclass from both sides, and no one excelled more than Milan skipper Paolo Maldini.
The ageless defender was an impassable wall as the dynamic Juventus attack was held at bay despite the overwhelming quality of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet. Milan later triumphed on penalties.
Porto 3-0 Monaco, 2004
The year all the giants imploded, Porto rose up into the role of giants themselves. In the final, they faced upstarts Monaco, who had seen off Real Madrid and Chelsea to make it to the showpiece. Deco, the chief playmaker for the Portuguese side, cared not one jot and orchestrated a 3-0 beatdown in Gelsenkirchen – scoring the second goal himself in some style.
15. Edwin van der Sar
Manchester United 1-1 Chelsea (6-5 pens), 2008
The first all-English Champions League final was a game fought in the trenches, with much of the action being away from the goalkeepers. The Dutchman did concede once, but only because the ball deflected about 68 times on its way to Frank Lampard, causing Edwin van Der Sar to slip.
He made up for this in the shootout, however. First intimidating John Terry into blasting his penalty against the post, and then psyching out Nicolas Anelka and making the crucial save in sudden death, winning the trophy for United.
14. Sergio Ramos
Real Madrid 1-1 Atlético Madrid (5-3 pens), 2016
Two years after his Champions League final heroics in 2014, Sergio Ramos was at it again. In Milan, he scored the game’s opening goal (though he was clearly offside) before defending magnificently for the rest of the game.
His tactical foul in stoppage time prevented a surefire winner for Atleti, and tilted the extra time advantage towards Los Blancos. Ramos even had the nerve to step up and convert a penalty in the shootout; not bad for your first final as captain, eh?
13. Andrés Iniesta
Barcelona 3-1 Juventus, 2015
Andrés Iniesta was supreme in Berlin as Barcelona ran Juventus into the ground, winning the Champions League and sealing a historic second treble for the Blaugrana. The diminutive playmaker was far from the only excellent performer on the night (Leo Messi and Gerard Piqué were superb) but it was his excellent movement, control and pass that allowed Ivan Rakitic to open the scoring just three minutes into the game.
That made him the first ever man to assist a goal in three different Champions League finals. It also set the tone and allowed Iniesta to calmly run the show from the middle of the park.
12. Steve McManaman
Real Madrid 3-0 Valencia, 2000
Real Madrid’s 5-2-3 formation asked an awful lot of Fernando Redondo and Steve McManaman. Thankfully they were up to the task more often than not. In the first all-Spanish showpiece the two men ran the show from the middle of the park as Valencia were dismissed 3-0.
McManaman got the award over Redondo more than likely because he sealed victory with a barely-believable bicycle-kick volley just after the hour mark. A magnificent moment, and not Madrid’s only golazo on this list.
11. Cristiano Ronaldo
Real Madrid 4-1 Juventus, 2017
Real Madrid were trying to retain the Champions League, something no one had done in almost 30 years, and they were facing a team who simply didn’t really concede all that much.
So, of course, it took Champions League goalscoring centurion Cristiano Ronaldo just 20 minutes to knock one into the back of the net. And he didn’t stop there, sealing the tie and turning a win into a massacre with his second just after the hour mark. These goals made him the first-ever player to score in three different finals.
10. Diego Milito
Inter 2-0 Bayern Munich, 2010
Looking like Jon Hamm’s less fortunate brother, Diego Milito played the 2010 Champions League final in ways even Don Draper would struggle to express.
The big target man was his side’s sole attacking outlet, a role he revelled in as he scored twice (to go with his goals that won Serie A and the Coppa Italia) to seal Inter and Italian football’s first ever treble. A heroic act that went unrewarded at the Ballon d’Or ceremony that year, confirming the award’s detachment from reality.
9. Gareth Bale
Real Madrid 3-1 Liverpool, 2018
Gareth Bale has had a perplexing career at Real Madrid where he’s never been really appreciated by the Madridistas despite nearly always producing big moments in their most-cherished competition: the Champions League. The greatest of these moments came in the 2018 final.
Bale came off the bench on the hour with the score at 1-1 and proceeded to score two goals of superhuman quality. The first saw him thunder in an overhead kick, a genius goal that came out of nowhere to stop Liverpool dead in their tracks. Not satisfied there, he unleashed a 25-yard piledriver into the back of the net (with the help of some poor Loris Karius goalkeeping) to kill the game at 3-1 and secure Madrid’s historic third consecutive Champions League trophy.
8. Angel Di Maria
Real Madrid 4-1 Atlético Madrid (AET), 2014
Real Madrid beat Atlético Madrid in the 2014 final in a truly bizarre game. The “hero” was clearly Sergio Ramos, whose stoppage-time equaliser saved Madrid from defeat. Gareth Bale took the glory with the go-ahead goal, Cristiano Ronaldo took all the front pages with his shirtless antics and Diego Costa became a villain for insisting he could play when he obviously couldn’t.
But it was Angel Di Maria who was the best player on the park for the whole game, constantly driving Madrid forward and doing his best to break the incredible Atleti defence (in the end he did manage just that, setting up Bale’s goal after some sublime skill). His reward for these feats? They sold him to make room for James Rodriguez. A shame.
7. Arjen Robben
Bayern Munich 2-1 Borussia Dortmund, 2013
Back in the day, Arjen Robben was considered a bit of a bottler. His appalling displays in the 2010 World Cup final (missing a 1v1) and 2012 Champions League final (missing a penalty) were positive proof of this. So when the ball fell to him, 1v1 with Roman Weidenfeller at Wembley with just one minute left on the clock, everyone knew he’d miss. He’d already missed a similar opportunity in the game after all.
Except he didn’t miss. He tiptoed around Dortmund bodies (as he did on the hour-mark when he set up the opening goal for Mario Mandzukic) and slotted the ball into the back of the net, giving Bayern Munich their first ever treble victory.
6. Didier Drogba
Chelsea 1-1 Bayern Munich (4-3 pens), 2012
It’s hard to imagine, but you can be named Man of the Match for just two touches of the ball. Didier Drogba didn’t play well against Bayern Munich, others were better as the Germans laid siege to the Chelsea goal. But when the time came for a hero, he was there.
In stoppage time, he rose to head home Juan Mata’s corner, saving the Blues from what would have been a thoroughly deserved loss. Then came penalties, and having wrecked his side’s chances back in 2008 by getting sent off, Drogba stepped up and with his last kick for the football club he loved (well, it should have been) the big man buried Bayern and gave Chelsea the greatest night of their life. Salute!
5. Oliver Kahn
Bayern Munich 1-1 Valencia (5-4 pens), 2001
Oliver Kahn was a mad, mad man. His intense and ferocious demeanour probably used to just scare strikers into missing chances. His attitude was doubtless a factor in the shoot-out against Valencia.
The German shot-stopper had been flawless during the game, only conceding to a penalty, and when the shootout rolled around he saved three spot-kicks, including a barely-believable effort to stop Benito Carboni from giving Valencia a pivotal lead. He was awarded Man of the Match for his efforts, and even if anyone wanted to argue with that, they’d be too afraid.
4. Steven Gerrard
Liverpool 3-3 Milan (3-2 pens), 2005
Steven Gerrard was absolutely rubbish for the first half of the 2005 Champions League final. Not just average or anonymous: straight-up bad. Milan went 3-0 up and all seemed lost. But Gerrard never saw a scoreline he couldn’t turn around, and sure enough, with a little help from Didi Hamann and a lot of help from Jerzy Dudek, Gerrard went to work. He scored a looping header, and then after Vladimir Smicer had scored a second literally two minutes later, Liverpool’s Captain Fantastic surged from the middle of the pitch and earned a penalty that allowed Xabi Alonso to equalise.
Gerrard spent the rest of the game defending for his life and then watching Milan bottle the shootout, giving the Reds a historic win. It was a weird, weird way to win Man of the Match. He was basically bad for most of the game and amazing for a brief spell, so criticism of it is understandable (Dudek was more objectively deserving). But if you saw those six minutes when he took the biggest club game in the world by the scruff of its neck, you’d understand.
Barcelona 2-0 Manchester United, 2009
Sometimes there’s more to a big game than moments. Sometimes dominance is total, and that’s what Xavi did to Manchester United. The Red Devils seemed to have a concerted effort to keep the ball away from Xavi in the early going, and with good reason.
His first touch of the ball started the move that led to Barcelona’s opening goal. From there he was the chief architect of Manchester United’s demise. His passing was so on point he managed to get Leo Messi to score a header against Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic. That’s power you can’t buy.
2. Zinedine Zidane
Real Madrid 2-1 Bayer Leverkusen, 2002
Did you know (and sorry about this one, Didier) you can be Man of the Match for just one kick of a ball? It helps if it is maybe the greatest single kick that any player has ever taken in a Champions League final. Iker Casillas was Madrid’s best performer on the night and the game’s most consistent player as he stopped a barrage of Leverkusen shots, but that kick… that kick.
The ball is falling from heaven, a gift from God, and you know that you cannot waste it. You have to give this ball the treatment that anything divine deserves. So you do. You swing your left-foot at it in a motion that is so unnatural it was as though Diana, goddess of the hunt, was manipulating your limbs herself. You strike, the ball flies off your foot like a rocket into the top corner and your team have the lead. A lead they never relinquish. Instantly your fee is justified; your club, your country, your existence is justified. You’ve transcended sport, logic and reason. You are Zinedine Zidane.
1. Leo Messi
Barcelona 3-1 Manchester United, 2011
One moment is great, but do you know what’s better? Loads of them. From start to finish. A whole game of great moments. Each one on a wholly different level to everyone and everything. How about an entire game of making the two best centre-backs in the world look like animatronic training cones? How about completing 10 dribbles (a record), and scoring the decisive go-ahead goal with such ferocity that the goalkeeper would have needed arms of Vibranium to stop it? That’s what we all got to witness back in 2011.
Leo Messi, playing as a false nine, was Barcelona’s chief architect in the most comprehensive and spectacular destruction in Champions League final history since 1960. The score was 3-1, but the chasm between the two sides would leave Jupiter hollowed out like a half-eaten apple, and Messi was digging!
It was a supernova of a performance. At once quiet, serene, and utterly ferocious. This game was a monument to Messi’s magnificence: he had marked history. Football now exists in two periods: before and after the devastation that Messi and Barcelona wrought on Manchester United.
Man of the match? Man of the century more like.